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Swine-flu epidemic set to worsen, says WHO

THE killer global swine-flu epidemic was still in its early stages and set to spread, the World Health Organization's flu chief warned yesterday.

Keiji Fukuda, WHO's Assistant Director-General for Health Security and Environment, told The Associated Press that given the size of the world's population, the new H1N1 virus was likely to spread for some time.

WHO earlier estimated that as many as 2 billion people could become infected over the next two years.

"Even if we have hundreds of thousands of cases or a few million cases ... we're relatively early in the pandemic," Fukuda said in an interview at WHO's headquarters in Geneva.

The global health agency stopped asking governments to report new cases last week, saying the effort was too great now that the disease had become so widespread.

Authorities in Britain said there were more than 100,000 infections in England alone last week, while American health officials estimate the United States has passed the 1-million-case mark.

"We know that the total number of laboratory-confirmed cases is really only a subset of the total number of cases," Fukuda said.

Fukuda, the former chief of epidemiology at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, also said there must be no doubt over the safety of swine-flu vaccines before they were given to the public.

Health officials and drug makers are looking into ways of speeding up the production of the vaccine before the northern hemisphere enters its flu season in the fall.

The first vaccines were expected in September and October, said Fukuda.

Other vaccines would take until December or January before they were released onto the market, he said.

The search for an effective inoculation has taken on a new urgency as WHO announced that almost 800 people have died from the disease in the past four months. This is more than the H5N1 bird flu strain has killed in six years.

Fukuda, in charge of WHO's pandemic response until mid-August while Hong Kong-born Director-General Margaret Chan is on leave, said the virus might mutate and become widely resistant to drugs such as Tamiflu.

Four Tamiflu-resistant cases have been reported recently from Hong Kong, Denmark, Japan and Canada.

"We haven't seen widespread emergence of resistance to the drug right now," Fukuda said.


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