Public Health

Swine Flu Vaccine Shortage Looms For Developing World

With August waning and an expected resurgence of swine flu on the horizon, health officials from developing countries are meeting in Beijing today. They're deeply worried about the next phase of the flu pandemic, judging from an Associated Press report.

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How often will this happen for swine flu? iStockphoto.com hide caption

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The WHO's director for the Western Pacific region, Dr. Shin Young-soo, told the Beijing meeting that soon many countries will see cases of swine flu double every three to four days for several months. "At a certain point, there will seem to be an explosion in case numbers," Shin says.

The most urgent problem is the paucity of swine flu vaccine for developing countries, says Dr. Keiji Fukuda, the World Health Organization's flu chief. The WHO convened the Beijing meeting.

So far two vaccine manufacturers have pledged 150 million doses of swine flu vaccine to poorer countries. But that's a drop in the bucket compared with the billions of people in developing nations at risk of getting the new H1N1 virus. The WHO expects two billion infections over the next two years — roughly a third of the planet's population.

While most will survive the flu without a problem, it's a dangerous virus for hundreds of millions — pregnant women and those with conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease and low immunity.

Leading public health experts are alarmed about the prospect of rich countries hogging virtually all the available vaccine while people in poor nations getting virtually none. Wealthy nations have already signed contracts with vaccine makers to lock up their supplies.

"I cannot imagine standing by and watching if, at the time of crisis, the rich live and the poor die," Dr. Tadataka Yamada of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wrote recently in an outline article for New England Journal of Medicine.

Yamada wrote it would be "inexcusable to force poor countries to wait until the rich have been served under their existing contracts." Wealthy nations, he argued, should stand in line "alongside poor countries, even if they have paid for their vaccine before others could do so."

The WHO's Fukuda says obtaining more vaccine for developing nations is just the first step. " Among the many pandemic response issues, this is probably the most critical issue — how we mobilize the vaccines, how we get them to developing countries," Fukuda warns.

Another unresolved issue: how should swine flu vaccine be priced for poorer countries.

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