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19 Aug, 2009 06:53

Tourism at stake in Thailand’s battle against swine flu

In countries which rely on tourism, containing the swine flu is vital to protect income – and with its tourist season about to begin, Thailand is pumping money into efforts to prevent the virus from spreading.

The birthday of Thailand’s Queen is one of the biggest holidays in the country and thousands of Thais usually take to the streets of Bangkok to mark the occasion.

But even while having fun, most of them do not get complacent. Hundreds of people wearing face-masks can be seen in the crowd – a clear result of the Thai government's full-on approach to battling the world's latest epidemic – the swine flu virus.

The Thai government's concern about the spread of the swine flu is very serious. Upon arrival in Bangkok's airport, instead of usual “welcome to local networks” message, one receives a text message telling where visitors should go in case they feel symptoms.

When the disease was recorded in Thailand for the first time, the authorities said there was no reason to worry, but then the number of infected people rose dramatically.

By mid-summer the epidemic had infected half a million Thais.

“Figures differ but we can say that all 74 provinces of Thailand have been infected with the virus. Around 10,000 people have been cured and 96 have died,” says Manit Nopamornbodee, Thailand’s Deputy Minister of Public Health.

The Public Health Ministry has sought to cure the problem with money, investing millions in virus prevention. Billboards, free face-masks, free distribution of antiviral pills and health checks have become common.

“We can say that Bangkok is almost clear of infection. At the same time, the infection rate in the provinces is growing but in case there will be a second wave of the virus, we can say we're ready to face it,” Manit Nopamornbodee says.

Indeed, if you ask yourself whether spending so much money has been affective, just look at the figures. In this country of sixty million people, up to half a million had been infected but less than a hundred died.

However, Nitipom Navaratna – a prominent Thai journalist – fears that next year his country could find itself on the brink of economic collapse, partly because of those excessively expensive counter-measures.

“We do believe that we will be able to totally control the disease by the end of this year but we are preparing for the coming difficulties,” says Nitipoom Navaratna.

The tourist season's peak is coming soon and it gives an additional incentive for the anti-swine flu struggle. The government desperately wants to say – “yes, it’s safe to come to Thailand”. Otherwise, millions could literally find themselves without income to put food on their tables.