An intergovernmental meeting of the World Health Organization (WHO), has failed to reach an agreement on sharing influenza virus research material and access to vaccines, with the US placing profits ahead of the threat of wide-scale, world-wide deaths from the current influenza A(H1N1), or Mexican swine flu, pandemic.
The impasse occurred despite a warning by Dr Thirawat Hemachudha, director of the WHO’s Collaborating Centre for Research and Training on Viral Zoonoses, that a second wave of the A(H1N1) influenza virus, or Mexican swine flu as it was originally termed, could occur as early as July.
In the past week the number of people infected by the influenza A(H1N1) virus has risen sharply, with the United States recording the highest number of cases, followed by Mexico where the pandemic began.
On Saturday the WHO reported an additional seven deaths, raising the number of people killed by the influenza A(H1N1) virus to 72, with 1,000 new confirmed cases reported in the previous 24 hours.
India, Turkey, Japan, Ecuador, Peru, Belgium, Cuba, Finland and Thailand have all confirmed cases of influenza A(H1N1) in the last week.
According to Dr Thirawat, the current situation is like a warning sign, reminding us that the big wave is coming. According to scientific records, the second wave should happen between two months to two years [after the initial outbreak].”
As the number of people infected by the influenza A(H1N1) virus hit almost 8,500 cases in 38 countries, the two-day WHO meeting concluded with poorer countries dissatisfied with the stance of the US.
“Intellectual property” says US
Indonesia, one of the countries hit in the outbreak, wanted vaccines produced by industrialised countries shared with developing nations which do not have the means to produce enough doses in case of a global pandemic.
Poor countries argued they should have access to the resulting vaccines, especially if the samples used to develop them came from the developing world. However, US delegates balked at this, insisting pharmaceutical companies should be able to claim the vaccines as intellectual property and earn royalties on them.
Coinciding with this, Japan confirmed 13 students at a high school in the western city of Kobe had tested positive for influenza A(H1N1), bringing the total number of confirmed cases there to 25.
In nearby Osaka city there are nine suspected cases from one high school, with about 100 additional students in the same school reporting symptoms such as fever.
The continued spread of influenza A(H1N1), for which no effective treatment is currently available, prompted former WHO senior official Shigeru Omi, who heads the Japanese government’s special swine flu task force to warn, “we believe that the infection is beginning to spread in the region.”
Though the WHO meeting had been planned for some time, it took on new urgency with the current outbreak.
Mexican swine flu, or influenza A(H1N1) as it was renamed, leapt into the spotlight on April 24, when the WHO announced around 800 suspected cases had been recorded in Mexico, along with seven cases in the US.
Five days later the WHO raised its alert level to five, calling on countries to prepare for an “imminent” pandemic.
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