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Uganda panic at swine flu hoax

22nd June 2009

An unsolicited text message, or SMS, sent panic through the streets of the Ugandan capital, Kampala, after it warned people against eating pork amid an "outbreak" of swine flu.

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The H1N1 virus, which originated in pigs, was declared a phase 6 pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) earlier this month. None of the cases reported so far have involved infection through consumption of pork.

The message claimed to come from Uganda's health ministry, which often uses SMS as a means of sending out health information to the population. Recently, it texted Ugandans to remind them to get immunised against polio.

The message said that those who passed the message on to 25 other people would get free calling minutes.

The ministry was forced to call a news conference to halt the panic, saying the reports that swine flu had broken out in the country were nothing but "baseless rumour".

Legislators even debated the hoax in Parliament, saying the message had caused them, too, to panic.
MP Mary Karoro Okurut demanded the government set the record straight for fear of causing nationwide alarm.

The text read: "Ministry of Health warning; to avoid swine flu which is suspected to be already in Uganda, you are advised not to eat pork or be near pigs for the time being. The first case reported in Ggaba and Nakulabye. Send this message to 25 people and MTN will reward you with airtime."

Paul Kaggwa, the assistant commissioner for health education and promotion in the Ministry of Health, said the rumour was probably started by a "funny and stupid person" who was opposed to pork.

Health minister Stephen Mallinga said Uganda had so far had no swine flu cases reported, but that the authorities were prepared for an outbreak.

Four cases of influenza-like symptoms had not tested positive for swine flu, he added.

His announcement was backed up by the country's top doctor, director for clinical services Nathan Kenya-Mugisha.

Mobile phone network service provider MTN has said it will block the text in future and investigate the origin.

The health ministry also reassured people that well-prepared pork was safe to eat.

Many in Uganda were surprised to hear the message was a hoax.

The first confirmed case of H1N1 influenza in sub-Saharan Africa was reported in South Africa last week.


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