Do we have anything to fear from Europe’s respiratory viruses?

BACK … Spain has introduced face mask rules as cases of Covid, flu and respiratory syncytial virus cases rise across Europe. Photo: DW

The Northern Hemisphere is in the grips of an onslaught of respiratory viruses.

The European Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) conduct monitoring of reported cases of influenza-like illness and coordinate the response thereof.

As of the second week of January, the agencies stopped short of sounding the alarm by announcing “elevated rates of influenza-like illnesses in 11 European countries”.

There is a mix of three different respiratory diseases – Covid-19 (caused by Sars-CoV-2), influenza (the flu) and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

While influenza appears to increase in Europe, with the latter two viruses falling, the United States (US) is experiencing a surge of the novel Covid-19 variant JN-1.

As the summer winds down, the spectre of a spike in these viruses for Namibia in the coming few months is possible, given the seasonal nature of respiratory viruses.

While we cannot stop the arrival of these viruses as winter approaches, we could mitigate the possibility of a surge in cases that would claim the lives of citizens.

MASS GATHERINGS

The 2024 election cycle in Namibia brings with it rallies across our country, with thousands expected to attend.

In addition, meetings, concerts and even election-themed events will likely take place.

We must remember that in the winter of 2021, Namibia once registered the highest per capita death rate for Covid-19 in the world.

People came into close contact with one another and transmission occurred.

To prevent a repeat of this scenario, people need to maintain social distance during these gatherings.

It would also be advisable for political parties to caution members against attending such gatherings even if they experience a light cough, sneeze or diarrhoea – all of which are symptoms of respiratory virus infection.

SICK LEAVE AND WORK

Owing to an overflow of influenza-like illnesses in Spain, its health ministry has proposed a three-day discretionary sick leave.

Currently, employees need to provide a justification for going on sick leave – as in Namibia – on medical grounds.

Yet the influx of individuals at healthcare facilities, where people wait to see the doctor for a letter, facilitates the transmission of these diseases.

Namibia would do well to emulate this example.

In the United Kingdom (UK), for instance, sick leave is discretionary for up to seven days – a doctor’s note is required only thereafter.

Liberalisation of this policy would likely reduce the number of patients at general practitioner (GP) waiting rooms and clinics in Namibia.

Furthermore, in our country we know there is little monitoring of sick leave letters.

Granted, there are genuine cases for these letters, but cutting the requirement for a sick-leave letter for a light illness is sensible from both anti-corruption and anti-respiratory virus perspectives.

While detractors may claim such a scheme would be open to abuse, it is an open secret that citizens already abuse the systems – friends and family often are the first to issue these ‘sick-leave’ letters.

VACCINATION

Without vaccination, the burden of death and disability as a result of the Covid-19 waves would have been far greater.

There is no substitute for vaccines that offer each individual protection against the worst possible outcomes.

This is precisely because other measures, such as avoiding mass gatherings, mask wearing and easing congestion at healthcare facilities are difficult to implement without the cooperation of different stakeholders.

It is up to the government to procure the necessary vaccines and promote their consumption in the population.

Leading by example, such as with flu vaccination and Covid-19 boosters among political party candidates would be a starting point.

  • Rakhel Mulongeni holds a master’s degree of public health from the University of Cape Town.

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