Diseases spreading faster than vaccines can be tested

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Vietnam's first human case of influenza A (H3N2) this year, the recent spread of hand-foot-mouth disease, and a recurrence of bird flu (H5N1) pose serious threats to nation's health


A woman pushes a bicycle past a stall selling slaughtered ducks at a roadside market in Hanoi's Gia Vien District. Preventive health authorities have warned against a spate of contagious diseases including bird flu and hand-foot-mouth disease.

Vietnamese preventive health authorities are doing their best to deal with a bleak scenario.

The problems include a slow response to the country's first case of H3N2, a subtype of influenza A, the lack of a vaccine for the new H5N1 variant and the spreading of the hand-foot-mouth disease, for which no vaccination currently exists. Contracting any of the diseases can be fatal.

On Monday (February 14), the Department of Preventive Health announced that two-year-old La Nguyen Thanh Ngan from the Mekong Delta province of Long An was the first person in Vietnam to contract the H3N2 virus.

The source of infection was a pig and there is no evidence that the virus is transmissible among humans, it said, adding that the girl had been admitted to HCMC Children's Hospital 1 and recovered soon after.

The announcement was made ten months after the patient contracted the disease.

Vietweek visited Ngan's hometown in Long An's My Le Commune and found that she had moved to District 12 in HCMC with her family before contracting the disease.

An official of the District 12's Preventive Health Agency said he was only aware of the case through the newspaper's report on Tuesday.

It was only then that representatives from the Ho Chi Minh City-based Pasteur Institute and local health authorities went to her home in District 12 to conduct an epidemiological study.

La Quang Vinh, Ngan's father, said the family was not raising fowl or swine.

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"There were many children in our neighborhood with fevers then. I think she contracted the disease from them," he said.

Vinh said doctors at the HCMC Children's Hospital 1 cultured a sample of mucus from her throat to be tested in the US.

He said relevant health authorities came to their house in District 12 but had misunderstood that the child was living in Long An with her grandparents.

"We only came back to Long An during Tet. They came to Long An and offered an appointment in District 12, saying they would study the epidemiology and meet other children in the neighborhood. However, I have not seen them since then," he said.

Nguyen Van Binh, director of the Preventive Health Department, said the Pasteur Institute is responsible for coordinating with local health authorities in the decontamination of affected areas and for taking preventative measures.

Bird flu

Meanwhile, Vietnam must contend with a more dangerous type of influenza A bird flu (H5N1) and its new 2.3.2 strain, which is resistant to the current vaccine.

At a meeting held by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development on February 18, the director of the Animal Health Department said bird flu has recurred in 11 cities and provinces since early this year.

Two people have died from H5N1 so far this year, including one in Kien Giang and another in Soc Trang, all in the Mekong Delta. The disease has led to the culling of nearly 35,000 fowl nationwide.

"There is a clear threat of an outbreak of the disease," he said.

According to Nam, the bird flu virus has significantly mutated since it first appearance in 2003. In addition to clade 1, clades 2.3.2A and 2.3.2B, which are more dangerous, have emerged in the north and north-central regions.

The current Re-5 vaccine is effective against clade 1 but its success rate is only 80 percent against clade 2.3.2A and its effect is negligible against clade 2.3.2B, he said.

He said experts in China, where the new strains have also appeared among fowl, have successfully developed an effective vaccine (H5N1-Re 6), but the Chinese government has yet to allow it to be used or produced extensively.

Earlier, he proposed that the Prime Minister urgently approve the purchase of 100 million H5N1-Re 5 vaccinations from abroad.

The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) confirmed with Vietweek that China is working on an updated vaccine against H5N1.

"OIE has knowledge that this vaccine is in the last stages before it will be on the market but as with every veterinary product, vaccines have to undergo testing and clearance by local authorities and the OIE does not have any information on the timetable for releasing this vaccine," it said in a statement.

In a recent statement, the Quang Nam Province Animal Health Agency said they had not vaccinated all the province's fowl, about five million birds, as of early this year when the Department of Animal Health suspended vaccinations in the region, saying it would not work against the new strain.

Hand-foot-mouth

Besides influenza A, another contagious disease is spreading in Vietnam and could worsen this year, health authorities said.

The hand, foot and mouth virus - for which no vaccine is available - has infected more than 6,000 people and killed nine children since January. The fatalities had contracted the EV-71 strain, a more virulent Enterovirus.

At a meeting on February 20 on controlling and preventing the disease, Tran Thanh Duong, deputy director of the Preventive Health Department said this year's infection rate is seven times higher than it was during the first six weeks of 2011.

However, it has slowed in comparison to its peak in September of 2011, which saw 3,000 cases per week.

Last year, the virus infected more than 110,000 people, causing the deaths of nearly 200 children.

According to the Preventive Health Department, the virus has been found in ten cities and provinces this year, including Hai Phong, Dong Thap, Khanh Hoa, Kien Giang, Can Tho, Ca Mau, Dak Lak, An Giang, Vinh Long and Hau Giang.

By Thanh Tung Lien Chau, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the February 24th issue of our print edition, Vietweek)
(TUAN LA contributed to this report)

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