By Robert Saiget (AFP) – Sep 11, 2009
BEIJING — Tens of millions of people could be infected with swine flu in China in the coming months, a health ministry official said Friday, adding that fatalities would be "unavoidable".
The world's most populous nation, at 1.3 billion, has so far reported nearly 7,000 cases of A(H1N1) influenza but no deaths. It soon plans to launch a nationwide vaccination programme to prevent mass outbreaks of the virus.
"According to expert estimates, our nation during the autumn season might have several tens of millions infected with A(H1N1)," Liang Wannian, deputy director of the ministry's health emergency office, told a press conference.
Liang said of that total, "half of them could experience clinical symptoms, several millions will seek medical help, and serious cases and fatalities will be unavoidable."
The spread of A(H1N1) influenza in China has gathered pace as the autumn months approach, Liang said, with more than half of the nation's nearly 7,000 cases detected between August 24 and September 10.
Of those cases, nearly 95 percent were homegrown, whereas the vast majority of cases reported from June to August originated abroad, he said.
"The situation we face is not optimistic," Liang said, noting that the virus had been found in all of China's 31 provinces and regions.
"We are facing severe challenges in our prevention and control work."
The World Health Organization (WHO) said last week that more than 2,800 people had so far died around the globe from swine flu. The virus has been detected in nearly every country.
The UN health body says China will be among the first in the world to launch a mass vaccination programme. The government has said it plans to vaccinate 65 million people, or five percent of the total population, before year's end.
"What we must work to prevent is a peak explosion of infections in a short period of time -- if this happens, it will be very dangerous," Liang said.
"If we see a large number of people infected in a short period of time, then a lot of people are going to seek medical help and our health system will not be able to handle this."
The State Council, or cabinet, on Thursday issued new regulations on handling A(H1N1) outbreaks, ordering the ministries of health and education, and the food and drug administration to coordinate prevention and control.
Such efforts will focus on schools as China has witnessed more than 200 "large-scale" outbreaks of swine flu since June, with over 85 percent of them occurring in schools or at school-related activities, Liang said.
The State Food and Drug Administration has granted approval to Beijing-based Sinovac to mass produce its one-dose swine flu vaccine, and is considering applications from other manufacturers, SFDA spokeswoman Yan Jiangying said.
The administration is closely monitoring potential side-effects of vaccinations, and putting in place a procedure to halt the programme should side-effects prove severe or production quality prove faulty, she added.
"We will begin emergency inoculations in an active, stable and orderly manner," with priority given to certain groups and in accordance with local outbreak conditions, Liang said, noting that vaccinations would be free.
Health Minister Chen Zhu said earlier this week that priority would be given to soldiers, police, children aged five to 19, those with chronic heart and lung diseases, medical workers, quarantine officials, and those working in the railway and aviation sectors.
People participating in the festivities to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of communist China on October 1 will also be given priority.
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