Official says flu epidemic under control, but supplies thin

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The spread of the swine flu epidemic is still under control, Deputy Minister of Health Trinh Quan Huan told a local newspaper recently, but experts say supplies are running thin.

As of Sunday, 8,419 had been infected with the influenza A (H1N1) virus nationwide since the disease was first detected here in May. But nearly 5,500 of those cases were reported this month alone.

Fourteen swine flu patients have died so far. The first two deaths were recorded in August, while twelve occurred this month.

"The Ministry of Health is adjusting its instructions on disease monitoring to the current situation," Huan told Tuoi Tre.

In provinces and cities with high infection rates - such as Ha Noi, HCMC and the southern province of Dong Nai - district-level hospitals will treat swine flu patients instead of sending them to higher-level facilities, which often takes time and therefore makes treatment less effective, according to Huan.

Asked about people's doubts that district-level hospitals would be able to diagnose and treat the disease properly, Huan said the ministry would instruct district-level hospitals on flu treatment next month.

"We also guarantee that there will be sufficient amounts of antiviral drugs at district-level hospitals."

Drug supplies low

Vietnam currently has some 1.1 million capsules of antiviral drug Tamiflu provided by the World Health Organization and other international organizations, said Nguyen Huy Nga, head of the ministry's Preventive Health Department.

The ministry is discussing plans to obtain more drugs, Nga added.

Other adjustments would include minimizing the number of flu test that need to be performed Huan noted.

"Given the current situation, we don't need to test everyone, but we need to make sure people can access treatment as soon as they are ill," he said.

The ministry has already asked hospitals to prescribe Tamiflu based on symptoms without waiting for tests in response to the increasing number of patients, Nguyen Van Kinh, head of the National Institute of Infectious and Tropical Diseases, told Thanh Nien in a recent interview.

According to the health ministry, most deaths related to H1N1 occurred because patients were admitted to hospitals late, or because they already had chronic diseases.

Those localities with less than 100 infections would pay more attention to monitoring the flu at schools and other places where the risk of outbreaks were more severe, according to Huan.

Checks at major border gates and airports will also be continued to combat the flu and other diseases that are likely emerge this winter, Huan said.

Asked whether or not citizens would receive H1N1 vaccines early next year as planned by the ministry, Huan said "steps have been taken" to ensure that other countries send shipments to Vietnam as soon as they are available.

At a recent meeting to combat the flu in Hong Kong, Minister of Health Nguyen Quoc Trieu has also asked the World Health Organization to support Vietnam with between 5-6 million doses of H1N1 vaccines, he said.

"We also are speeding up the country's vaccine production to have the vaccines available at reasonable prices soon."

Although China has recently put its first H1N1 vaccines into use, most countries, including the US, expect their vaccines not to be available until next month.

But Nga from the Preventive Health Department said that while vaccines could be counted on to limit the number of swine flu deaths, there were not enough available to prevent epidemics.

To eradicate the disease, at least 80 percent of the people who have not been vaccinated need to be given the vaccine, which costs around US$10 a dose, said Nga, arguing that such measures were impossible at this point.

As the vaccines are not yet available, Huan warned that the epidemic would pick up around this November and December in Vietnam, advising people to keep away from crowds if possible and follow preventive measures like hand washing.

"[People] should not be too worried, but not too ignorant also, in order to prevent the epidemic," Huan said.

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