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July 15, 2009

Surging Swine Flu Pandemic Faces Months Without New Vaccine

A vaccine to contend with the mounting swine flu pandemic is not going to be readily available for months as the death toll from the virus increases, according to a statement made by the world's top health official on Wednesday.

World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan made the comments after Australia and Japan reported a surge in cases of the A(H1N1) virus, and Argentina experienced a sharp increase in the number of deaths from 94 to 137 in just three days.

"There's no vaccine. One should be available soon, in August. But having a vaccine available is not the same as having a vaccine that has proven safe," Chan told Britain's Guardian newspaper.

The swine flu viruses currently being used to develop a vaccine do not contain enough of the ingredient needed for the vaccine, therefore WHO has requested that its laboratory network produce a new set of viruses as soon as possible.

Countering health officials in Britain and elsewhere who claimed the first stocks would start arriving in August, she added "clinical trial data will not be available for another two to three months."

Referring to the pandemic as "unstoppable", WHO director of vaccine research Marie-Paul Kieny had said Monday that a swine flu vaccine should be available as early as September.

In order to immunize almost a third of its population, Germany said it planned on having to order nearly 25 million doses of vaccine.

The country hit the hardest of the Asia-Pacific region was Australia, which has already placed an order in advance for 21 million doses. That would be enough to immunize its entire population.

The reason for the higher numbers in Australia and Argentina is because they are now in the southern hemispheric winter, and officials fear a major rise in infections when the northern hemisphere enters the colder months of winter when regular influenza becomes rampant.

Deputy health minister Ferruccio Fazio predicts that Italy might be dealing with between three and four million cases of swine flu by March 2010.

WHO's vaccine experts have recommended that countries choose which groups should get first dibs on the vaccine. They advised it be given to people such as pregnant women, people with chronic respiratory problems or obesity, children, and possibly young to middle-aged adults, who have been disproportionately affected by the virus.

Around 8.6 million Italians would have been vaccinated against the A(H1N1) virus by the end of this year, with the most vulnerable and emergency workers being treated first, he said.

In terms of fatalities, Argentina's new death toll made it the nation hit the worst after the United States, which has 211 deaths and 37,000 confirmed infections according to the latest numbers.

The third most afflicted country is Mexico with 124 deaths and 12,521 infections. They reported Tuesday that swine flu cases were increasing in number up in the southeast, particularly in Chiapas state near Guatemala.

On Wednesday, health ministers from six South American countries were to meet in order to plan a coordinated response. Argentina was set to host the meeting of ministers from Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay.

The WHO's global swine flu death count hit 429 with over 94,500 infections tallied worldwide before including the latest numbers from Argentina.

The total of swine flu cases in Australia had reached 10,387, which accounts for more than 10% of the WHO's global total. The country believes that the swine flu was responsible for the deaths of around 20 people.

Australian Health Minister Nicola Roxon said the actual number might be higher, and therefore said that health authorities are worrying about a growing number of serious cases in young people.

"We do see that there are some people who are young and otherwise healthy who have the rapidly deteriorating disease ... it's obviously concerning," she said.

On Wednesday, a nationwide protest was called by around 15,000 doctors in Peru demanding more effective prevention against the infamous swine flu, which has claimed at least five lives and infected around 2,000 people in the South American nation.

"We demand addressing adequately the needs of hospitals in order to prevent further mistakes in the treatment of swine flu and to avoid more deaths," Leoncio Diaz, president of the Peruvian Medical Federation, told AFP.

French football club AS Nancy cancelled their pre-season trip to Britain, Europe's hardest hit country, out of fear of contracting the virus.

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