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August 22, 2009

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WHO warns of swine flu 'explosion'

THE global spread of swine flu will endanger more lives as it speeds up in the coming months, and governments must boost preparations for a swift response to a coming "explosion" of cases, the World Health Organization said yesterday.

Many countries could see swine flu cases double every three to four days for several months until peak transmission is reached, once cold weather returns to the northern hemisphere, said WHO's Western Pacific director, Shin Young-soo.

"At a certain point, there will seem to be an explosion in case numbers," Shin told a symposium of health officials and experts in Beijing. "It is certain there will be more cases and more deaths."

The WHO says the swine flu virus -- also known as H1N1 -- has killed almost 1,800 people worldwide.

International attention has focused on how the pandemic is progressing in southern hemisphere countries such as Australia where winter -- and the flu season -- has started. But it is in developing countries that the spread of swine flu poses the greatest threat as it places ill-equipped and underfunded health systems under severe strain, Shin said.

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

Others said Shin's warning was needed but that they were optimistic the spread would not be that serious. Ann Moen, an influenza expert with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that if current trends continue it is possible that the swine flu pandemic will not be worse than a severe flu season.

"I think the world was preparing for an H5N1 (bird flu) pandemic and we didn't get that. So maybe this is our supreme tabletop exercise, a global sort of practice for something bigger," Moen told The Associated Press.

Health officials and drug makers are considering how to speed up production of a vaccine before the northern hemisphere enters its flu season. Estimates for when a vaccine will be available range from September to December.

Delegates from Bangladesh and Myanmar appealed for help in procuring vaccines or making them more affordable for poorer countries, saying they were left vulnerable while rich nations pre-ordered most of the available stock.

"Developing countries like us, we have to fight this war without vaccines," said Mya Oo, deputy health minister of Myanmar. He urged pharmaceutical companies to consider selling the vaccines to developing countries at just above cost.


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