Pandemic H1N1 influenza is now in virtually every country in the world, and health officials are bracing for an upsurge in cases as winter sets in, World Health Organization officials said this morning.
"At WHO, we remain concerned about the pattern we are seeing, particularly because a sizable number of people do develop serious complications and death," Dr. Keiji Fukuda, a special advisor to the WHO director-general on pandemic influenza, said at a news conference. "We anticipate seeing continued or increased activity during the winter period in the Northern Hemisphere. This also means we expect to see continued reports of serious cases and deaths."
The most recent figures available show that at least 5,700 people worldwide have died from swine flu, with 4,175 of those in the Americas.
Fukuda said that vaccinations against swine flu have started in 20 countries and that millions of doses have been delivered safely, with no adverse events. He complained, however, that the agency has yet to receive most of the 200 million doses of vaccine that were to be donated by 11 countries. Delays in production of the vaccine have led to shortages, and most countries, like the United States, have chosen to vaccinate their high-priority groups before making good on their pledges.
In other flu news:
-- Swine flu has struck the remote Yanomami tribe in Venezuela, showing that no one is safe from the virus. Seven people have died from the flu, out of a population of only 28,000. Several of the victims were babies, and one was a pregnant woman. Fukuda said the virus has also struck aboriginal populations in Australia severely, and it is not clear yet whether the high rate of infection is related to a genetic susceptibility or to poor healthcare.
-- Cold weather has brought an outbreak of swine flu in Mongolia, and the country has been requesting additonal doses of the antiviral drug Tamiflu to combat its spread. The country has confirmed 859 cases of swine flu and six deaths, but healthcare facilities have been struggling to cope with the surge in unconfirmed cases. Mongolia previously had a stockpile of 11,000 doses of Tamiflu, half provided by the WHO in May. The agency is now sending an additional 45,000 doses.
-- In an effort to ease the burden on its healthcare system caused by swine flu, Norway has decided to allow sale of Tamiflu without a prescription. Health officials have feared that such sales would lead to indiscriminate use of the drug, increasing the risk of the virus developing resistance to what is currently the most valuable tool to fight infections. Fukuda, however, called the decision to allow over-the-counter sales "innovative and prudent."
-- An intense outbreak is occurring in Ukraine, with 500,000 cases of acute respiratory distress and 85 deaths, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Both the WHO and European officials have been sending in teams to help out.
-- As if Wall Street weren't already hated enough, recent news reports have said that at least 13 major companies, including Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase, have received allocations of swine flu vaccine. Such allocations are approved by state health officials, in this case New York, who generally approve shipments for use in high-risk groups. Critics charge that the companies are getting favorable treatment. "It seems safe to assume the vast majority of their employees are not pregnant women, infants and children, young adults up to 24 years old, and healthcare workers," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
-- A new McClatchy-Ipsos poll found that almost half of Americans are rejecting the swine flu vaccine. Only 52% said they were likely to get it, and only 33% said they are very likely to get it. The poll apparently did not ask why they were rejecting it, but many people have been concerned about the safety of the vaccine, despite repeated assurances that it is made exactly like the seasonal flu vaccine, which has proved safe in hundreds of millions of people.
-- Thomas H. Maugh II