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China rings alarm over possible flu pandemic
Updated: 2004-12-30 22:09

China has increased measures to guard against a possible flu pandemic this winter-spring period in response to the World Health Organization (WHO) warning that an outbreak is long overdue.

The Ministry of Public Health has recently discussed an emergency program to guard against flu and experts reiterated that the world should prepare for a flu pandemic.

Dr. David Ho, a prestigious Chinese-American expert on AIDS and epidemics, warned that a new round of flu triggered by a new virus strain is expected to break out from southeast Asia or China.

China should fully prepare since the epidemic might do the most damage there, Ho said at China's annual meeting of scientists in November.

Large cities have stepped up surveillance measures on flu.

Guangzhou, capital of south China's Guangdong Province neighboring Hong Kong, has built up 19 surveillance sites at hospitals. In fact, Guangzhou suffers from more than ten small flu outbreaks each year and it's especially important to detect flu in the most dangerous season from winter to spring, according to Guangzhou Municipal Health Bureau.

Local health department will keep close watch on patients suffering from fever, cough and sore throat for three days.

Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) has drafted a plan outlining a clear command and response coordination structure for any influenza outbreak, catering for three different response levels, "alert," "serious" and "emergency."

The Hong Kong SAR government proposed to the Legislative Council Panel on Health Services ordering 1.1 million antiviral doses in advance of the peak winter influenza season.

Shanghai has set up 43 surveillance sites to monitor flu cases. Nine municipal surveillance sites will collect typical flu samples for Shanghai Municipal Disease Control and Prevention Center.

Shanghai generally watches for flu outbreaks from November 15 to April 1, said Wang Panshi, director of the Shanghai Health Bureau disease control center, and the municipality has laid out new programs to guard against SARS, flu and other infectious diseases until April 2005.

Zhong Nanshan, of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, recently urged the public to receive flu vaccinations. So far, however, less than one percent of Chinese have received flu vaccination, far fewer than the 27 percent in the United States and the 7.8 to 17.7 percent in European countries.

A recent survey of 1,100 residents of Chinese cities show more than half of them think influenza is about the same as a cold, and 80 percent believe there is no necessity to take any precautionary measures.

During a department store promotion in Beijing, customers were allowed to choose various gifts including a medical card for influenza vaccine worth about 100 yuan (12 US dollars) and other small commodities less than 20 yuan (2.4 US dollars) each. Most customers preferred the commodities to the vaccine.

In China, each domestically produced vaccine is priced at about 70 yuan (8.43 US dollars) and each imported one is priced at about 100 yuan (12.05 US dollars).

Analysis shows flu virus mutates dramatically about every 39 to 40 years and the mutation can trigger a global pandemic.

The WHO says the flu virus has not mutated significantly for 36 years, indicating a major outbreak is probably impending.

Fears of a new global outbreak have also been spurred by last year's epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which struck hardest in Asia. The flu-like disease killed nearly 800 people worldwide.

Worries also have been stoked by the H5N1 bird flu virus, which decimated poultry stocks in Asia and spread to people. But there was no evidence it had acquired human-flu characteristics it would need to be passed easily among people.

If that were to happen, the resulting pandemic could cause as many as 7 million deaths, the WHO has warned.

"It is most worrying that bird flu could mix with human flu virus, giving rise to a mutated strain that would become transmissible among people," said Xu Ruiheng, deputy director of the Guangdong Provincial Disease Prevention and Control Center.

"Compared with SARS, the outbreak of a flu pandemic is more hazardous," Xu said.

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