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Some measures won’t help prevent flu pandemic – report

2A woman talks on a phone through a protective mask while waiting for a health check at a hospital in Hanoi August 4, 2009.

Some measures won’t help prevent flu pandemic – report

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Closing schools, stopping large gatherings and other such measures are unlikely to do much to prevent the spread of the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, a team of experts predicted on Wednesday.

They said pandemic closely resembles the pandemic of H2N2 influenza in 1957 when it quickly became apparent that there was little officials could do to stop it.

“Efforts to mitigate it were futile,” Brooke Courtney Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center said in a telephone interview.

Federal officials are expected to announce their recommendations for school closures on Friday. Local school districts and states usually make the decision to close schools, but they look to the federal government for advice.

At the height of the epidemic in May, more than 700 schools closed in the United States, according to the Department of Education.

In Mexico, where the pandemic started, officials closed government offices and schools for around two weeks in April and May, and encouraged businesses to close.

H1N1 is still circulating and, just as influenza did in 1957, it is dominating the mixture of viruses in the southern hemisphere’s flu season going on now.

In its latest update last week the World Health Organization reported 162,230 confirmed cases and 1,154 deaths. But flu experts said this probably reflected only a fraction of the true count as not every patient can be diagnosed with a lab test.

Experts expect the flu will pick up activity in the northern hemisphere’s autumn and the WHO predicted one third of the world’s population — two billion people — will eventually be infected.

TOO WIDESPREAD

Governments are taking different approaches to slowing the spread of the virus. Last month, British experts on the spread of disease said closing schools at the first sign of a new pandemic might delay the worst so health officials can prepare, but cannot prevent the spread of the disease.

Writing in the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism, Courtney, Dr. D. A. Henderson and colleagues said it appears that the new H1N1 is now too widespread to try to stop.

“In 1957 it was decided pretty early on that efforts to quarantine or isolate people would not be effective,” Courtney said.

As happened this year, the virus first appeared in the northern hemisphere’s spring. It worsened in the fall. “The opening of schools in September appeared to be a major factor in initiating community epidemics,” the researchers wrote.

“Schools were not closed for the purpose of trying to control the spread of disease. They were closed because too many teachers or administrators or students were out,” Courtney said.

In 1957, 25 percent of the U.S. population became ill. Global health experts estimate two million people died.

“What we saw was that the federal government took very practical steps to deal with the expected pandemic in the fall in 1957,” Courtney said. “They understood that, yes, it was expected that there would be a lot of people who got sick.”

In 1957 it took months to make a vaccine and then it was not very effective, the researchers found.

Drug companies have started making vaccine against H1N1 swine flu. But the recommended population of 160 million people, including healthcare workers and pregnant women, cannot be fully immunized until December, experts estimate. Two doses are needed for full protection.

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Companies claim single-dose swine flu vaccine

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Companies claim single-dose swine flu vaccine

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ZURICH/BEIJING  – Novartis AG said on Thursday a single dose of its swine flu vaccine might protect against the virus, raising hopes that potentially tight supplies could go further when mass immunization starts this month.

Novartis said a single dose of the Celtura H1N1 vaccine, boosted with an immune-stimulating compound called an adjuvant, produced desired effects in 80 out of 100 volunteers.

The new H1N1 strain of flu, declared a pandemic on June 11, could eventually infect 2 billion people, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates.

Because it is a new strain, infectious disease experts have said people will need two doses to get full immunity against the virus. They are rushing vaccine programmes as the weather cools in the Northern Hemisphere and the traditional flu season starts.

Chinese health authorities have given a green light to Sinovac, which says its vaccine needs only one shot to be effective.

“This is good news as one dose of Celtura may be sufficient to protect adults against the swine flu. This potentially boosts that availability of flu vaccines for the upcoming flu season when a large outbreak of swing flu is expected,” said Karl-Heinz Koch, an analyst at Swiss brokerage Helvea.

But health officials are cautious

“While we do not yet have full details, these appear to be encouraging results. Any vaccine which can be administered in one dose only will substantially increase the number of overall doses available to the world’s people,” said WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl.

Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noted that the Novartis vaccine uses the MF59 adjuvant, while the United States will only use vaccines without an adjuvant.

Cell-based vaccines like Novartis’s are quicker and easier to manufacture than traditional flu vaccines grown in chicken eggs. However, supplies are limited for now and currently make up about 30 percent of the Swiss group’s capacity.

Novartis said a pilot trial of Celtura run by Britain’s Leicester University with 100 volunteers showed a potentially protective immune response in 80 percent of patients after one dose and more than 90 percent after two doses. Other studies with 6,000 adults and children are continuing.

Sinovac, the first company to complete clinical trials, received approval from Chinese health authorities to mass produce a vaccine for the new strain of H1N1 and raised its annual sales forecast. Some experts remain sceptical, as Sinovac has not published data to back up its claims.

“We look forward to seeing the data from China and elsewhere about vaccine efficacy,” Frieden told reporters.

Sinovac shares rose some 16 percent to $9.90 by 1351 GMT, while Novartis slipped 0.8 percent to 48.62 Swiss francs, in line with the DJ Stoxx European healthcare sector.

WINDFALLS

Other pharmaceutical companies like Sanofi Aventis, GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca’s MedImmune unit are also racing to develop H1N1 vaccine as governments scramble to secure supplies.

Clinical trials to see what kind of dose will be needed are under way in the United States, Australia and Europe. Australia’s CSL is already producing H1N1 vaccine and is making 1.0 million to 1.5 million doses per week until it fills all orders.

There is also high demand for antiviral drugs Relenza, from Glaxo, and Tamiflu, made by Switzerland’s Roche, which treat flu rather than immunizing against it. Sales to governments will provide a revenue and profit windfall for many drugmakers this year and in 2010.

“At the beginning of this year, we forecast our sales would rise by 20 percent,” Sinovac Chief Executive Yin Weidong said on Thursday. “Looking at things now, H1N1 has given us an opportunity, so the rise should be more than 20 percent.”

H1N1 vaccines would be given separately from regular seasonal flu shots.

(Reporting by Sam Cage and Lucy Hornby; Additional reporting by Emma Thomasson in Zurich, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Ben Hirschler in London and Michael Perry in Sydney)

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