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No. of Influenza A Patients to Soon Reach 1,000

Posted July. 21, 2009 07:50,   


The number of Influenza A (H1N1) cases in Korea reached 856 yesterday and could break 1,000 this week at this pace.

Health, Welfare and Family Affairs Minister Jeon Jae-hee said, “If the number of patients continues to increase, we cannot tackle the situation with the personnel and equipment we have now,” hinting at shifting policy focus to treatment from prevention.

A meeting of related ministries today will discuss measures to counter the highly contagious disease, including a hike in the national alert level and isolated treatment of patients at hospitals.

The government will stop compiling the tally of new flu patients since it is virtually impossible to block transmission amid rising infections in the provinces. Another reason not to keep count is that seasonal flu infects four to five million Koreans, or about 10 percent of the population.

The last rise in the flu alert level came April 28, when it was hiked to Level 2 or “Yellow.” With new cases reported by the dozens every day this month, more experts say Korea needs to shift its strategy to treatment aimed at preventing secondary infections, including pneumonia, because new flu outbreaks are believed to have passed a situation suitable for early countermeasures.

The government plans to make additional adjustments if and when the number of secondary infections tops 250. After the first community infection outside of Seoul was confirmed at an elementary school in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province, the number of community infections has neared 100.

Health authorities predict that once schools begin summer vacation, the number of infections will subside.

The virulence of the Influenza A virus has proven lower than predicted, however. Park Seung-cheol, chairman of the National New Influenza Countermeasure Committee, said, “Influenza A has entered a subsiding phase.”

Many other experts say the virus has become a “local community disease,” however, since the number of patients has continued to increase. If the flu mutates in winter, the fear is that it could turn more virulent.

Hence, health authorities have secured enough Tamiflu, the anti-flu drug, for five million people, or about 10 percent of the population. Emergency budget of 174.8 billion won (140 million U.S. dollars) has been allocated to purchase influenza vaccines for 13 million people (27 percent of the population) by November.

The government plans to acquire vaccine supplies for five million people from Green Cross, a Korean vaccine manufacturer, and the remainder from multinational drug makers.

Foreign companies were conspicuously absent from the first competitive bid hosted by the Public Procurement Service for flu vaccines for 1.3 million people. The reason cited is that at 7,000 won (5.60 dollars), the suggested price per dose was too low for them to participate. On the international market, the vaccine is priced at 15,000 (12 dollars) to 18,000 won (14.4 dollars) per dose.

A bigger problem, however, is that since clinical trials for the Korean vaccine has yet to begin, it is uncertain whether mass production of the vaccine can start by early November.

Korea will receive a sample vaccine product from the World Health Organization late this month and then begin production. It takes about six months to one year, however, to market a flu vaccine after clinical trials.

A clinical trial expert said, “Authorities can verify the efficiency of a vaccine 20 days after a second clinical trial and 20 days after a third,” adding, “Even if a regulatory review begins simultaneously with clinical trials, commercial production of the vaccine will only start around year’s end.”

Thus, the only prevention strategy is for individuals to maintain good personal hygiene until the vaccine is made available.

Yet people have no reason to panic even if the number of patients increases because the case fatality of the Influenza A virus is 0.4 percent, lower than that of seasonal flu.

Park said, “A secondary infection such as pneumonia caused by Influenza A is a bigger problem rather than the flu itself,” adding, “Senior citizens and patients are advised to take all vaccines against seasonal flu, pneumococcal disease, and Influenza A wherever possible.”