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Swine flu vaccinations set to begin amid global warnings

TOKYO
HEALTH authorities in Asia need to ensure they are prepared for new influenza pandemics, even as cases of swine flu – which has resulted in six deaths in Cambodia – are expected to decrease this year in most areas, an international symposium was told Tuesday.

Meanwhile, officials in Cambodia said a domestic vaccination campaign for swine flu, or H1N1, could begin as soon as today.

Dr Hitoshi Oshitani, a professor in the department of virology at Japan’s Tohoku University graduate school of medicine, warned public health officials meeting in Tokyo to be wary of both the H1N1 influenza pandemic – which he said had not fully run its course – as well as pandemics of other strains of influenza, which he said were likely.

“We still have to prepare for the second season of H1N1. In some places of the world the mortality impact could be much greater than in the first season,” he said. “We cannot let our guard down, and we should be strengthening our preparedness for the next pandemic.”

Oshitani said future pandemics might be more virulent than last year’s H1N1.

“A few years ago it was said more than a million would die if the H1N1 pandemic went worldwide. Fortunately, the 2009 H1N1 pandemic was not so virulent, and the mortality rate was much smaller than we anticipated,” he said.

A March 18 report produced by the Communicable Diseases Control Department at the Ministry of Health, said that there had been 566 cases of H1N1 in Cambodia, resulting in six deaths.

About 300,000 H1N1 vaccine doses, intended to cover at-risk populations in four provinces, have been handed over to the Health Ministry by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and more vaccines will arrive to cover more provinces, Dr Nima Asgari, public health specialist for the WHO, said Tuesday.

He added that the vaccination campaign could begin today.

Swine flu worldwide
According to figures provided by Oshitani at the symposium, organised by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, the H1N1 pandemic had caused 16,813 deaths in 213 countries and territories as of March 14.

The H1N1 influenza strain was first identified in Mexico in late April 2009, and the WHO announced the pandemic on June 12.

It followed the comparatively more lethal H5N1 influenza virus, which caused a pandemic from 2004 to 2008.

Oshitani said the H5N1 influenza, or avian/bird flu, strain was still present in avian populations and causing sporadic human infections. Health officials in Cambodia reported in February that bird flu had killed thousands of ducks in Takeo province.

Dr Peter Horby, director of the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Vietnam, warned that the relatively low number of deaths caused by the H1N1 pandemic compared to H5N1 could lead to complacency among public health officials, but said this should be avoided. “People were expecting a 1918 pandemic and they didn’t get one, so the danger is that next time they will not be as well prepared,” he said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY WILL BAXTER

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