Let’s start with the good news: Clinical trials of the swine flu vaccines currently under production are showing that a single shot may be enough to protect a person against the H1N1 virus, rather than the series of two shots that was thought to be necessary. That means the vaccine supplies rolling off the pharmaceutical companies’ assembly lines will cover twice as many people. Experts say it should be possible to vaccinate — well before the flu’s expected midwinter peak — all the 159 million people that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate are in the high-risk groups: pregnant women, people under 24 years old or caring for infants, people with high-risk medical conditions and health-care workers [The New York Times].
In China, vaccinations are already underway, still Chinese health official Liang Wannian says the virus may well sicken tens of millions in the coming months. “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 [AFP]. While most cases won’t be severe, Liang says the sick could overwhelm the country’s hospitals and clinics.
While Chinese officials have said that vaccinations would start with high-risk groups, they also disclosed that people participating in the festivities of National Day on October 1st, which marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of communist China, will be at the front of the line. There are at least 200,000 official participants, plus thousands of security police. According to the BBC’s China analyst, Shirong Chen, they have been pushed to the front of the queue not just because it is a huge public event that carries national pride, but because all the top leaders and dignitaries will be in Beijing. The authorities cannot afford the political risk of any infection there [BBC News]. However, this prioritizing may leave less vaccine available for children, pregnant women, and health care workers.
The H1N1 virus has officially spread to the ends of the earth: Cases have been reported in the remote Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, and there has been one death. Biologist Simon Goodman notes that the twice-daily flights to the Galapagos can bring both infected tourists and stowaway mosquitoes. For him, the arrival of swine flu highlights just how hard it is seal the islands off from the rest of the world. “The previous geographic isolation of Galapagos is completely eroded now,” he says [Nature News]. In a more general sense, the rapid spread of swine flu (depicted here in a neat video) has underlined how interconnected every part of our world is these days.
Swine flu cases are expected to pick up in the northern hemisphere as the weather cools and students return to school. In some places, fears are eliciting strange new rules. In one town in France, the mayor has decreed that school children may not kiss each other on the cheeks, a traditional Gallic greeting. In place of planting un petit bisou on each cheek, pupils are expected to keep their distance…. [One teacher] added that if the pupils felt the need to show affection in the absence of kisses they could take a paper heart from one of the “bisous boxes” [The Guardian]. Meanwhile, in Naples, Italy, citizens will be banned from performing the time-honored ritual of kissing the blood of their patron Saint Gennaro when the city’s annual festival begins later this month [Reuters]. The blood is kept in a glass phial, and people will be permitted only to touch it with their foreheads, church officials say.
Back in the United States, the market for pork products is still suffering due to the bad public relations blow that occurred when the H1N1 virus was labeled “swine flu.” To help hog farmers, the U.S. Agriculture Department announced that it will buy up another $30 million purchase of surplus pork. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack also said he would work with fellow Cabinet secretaries in the Defense, Justice and Education departments to encourage pork purchases on military bases, in prisons and in schools…. Vilsack stressed — his voice sometimes betraying a how-many-times-must-I-repeat-this weariness — people could not get sick by eating infected pork [Time]. The H1N1 flu virus spreads the same way that the seasonal flu spreads–through sneezing and coughing people.
Finally, a bit of bad news: Two U.S. girls who were given the antiviral drug Tamilflu at summer camp in an attempt to prevent an outbreak have come down with a drug-resistant strain of swine flu. The CDC says this supports its new recommendations that flu drugs not be given to prevent infection among people who are otherwise healthy [Reuters]. If drug-resistant strains spread quickly, health workers will lose the most effective treatments against the illness.
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