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WHO urges an increase in influenza vaccination

Composition for southern hemisphere 2003 season influenza vaccine announced

Influenza can kill. To counter its constantly changing forms, the World Health Organization (WHO) this week convened a panel of experts to decide on the formula for next year's southern hemisphere influenza vaccine. Yesterday, as the meeting concluded, WHO urged governments around the world to scale up their vaccination programmes to protect vulnerable people from this serious disease.

"Influenza vaccines are lifesavers and we must see they reach those at greatest risk. We want to see a big reduction in the unacceptably high levels of illness and deaths caused by annual influenza epidemics", says Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General of WHO.

Influenza can be a deadly disease, not just an inconvenience. During the most recent influenza outbreak in Madagascar which began in early June 2002 and lasted until late August, more than 22,000 people were infected. Six hundred and seventy one people died. The victims were mainly children in the affected area who lacked of access to medical care and had poor nutrition. In the most affected province, Fianarantsoa, there were 18,808 cases and 556 deaths. And in the United States last year, influenza killed an estimated 20,000 people.

It is not known how many people are infected and die from influenza in most countries, particularly in the developing world, but the elderly, chronically ill and young children are particularly at risk. In addition to the death toll, influenza also inflicts a huge toll of suffering, medical consultations, hospitalization, absenteeism and economic loss.

WHO recommends that governments begin vaccination campaigns prior to the influenza season and ensure that as many vulnerable people as possible are covered before the first cases of influenza appear.

Influenza is one of the oldest and most common diseases known to man. It can also be one of the deadliest. The "Spanish flu" pandemic of 1918-1919 -- considered to be the worst disease outbreak in the last century -- claimed up to 40 million lives and infected half the world's population. An alarming reminder came again with the emergence of an avian influenza virus known as A(H5N1) in Hong Kong, Special Administrative Region of China, in 1997 when one third of affected patients died. Fortunately, this outbreak did not develop into a global health emergency.

For most healthy people, influenza leads to a high fever, headaches, coughing and a few days off work or school, followed by complete recovery. For the elderly and chronically ill, however, the disease can mean hospitalization and even death. In developing countries, where it is often not perceived as a major public health problem, there is a particularly urgent need to assess the impact of influenza and tackle the disease appropriately.

Each year WHO brings together international influenza experts to decide the composition of the influenza vaccine for the next year. More than 250 million influenza vaccine doses are then produced and administered globally every year, saving hundreds of thousands of lives and reducing illness.

This year's consultation to decide the vaccine content for the southern hemisphere 2003 season concluded yesterday at WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. WHO recommends the following viruses be used for influenza vaccine production next year:

  • an A/New Caledonia/20/99(H1N1)-like virus
  • an A/Moscow/10/99(H3N2)-like virus*
  • a B/Hong Kong/330/2001-like virus**

*The widely used vaccine strain is A/Panama/2007/99
**Some currently used vaccine strains are B/Shandong/7/97, B/Hong Kong/330/2001, B/Hong Kong/1434/2002

In February this year WHO recommended the same vaccine content for the northern hemisphere 2003 influenza season.

The WHO recommendation was discussed today with representatives from all major influenza vaccine companies to allow sufficient time for production of the vaccine before influenza hits again next year

For more information contact:

Mr Dick Thompson
Telephone: +41 22 791 2684
Mobile phone: +41 79 475 5475

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