More H1N1 cases stoking public fears in China

09:46, November 03, 2009      

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In October, the H1N1 flu pandemic killed seven people on the Chinese mainland, stoking the public's fears, and leading them to wonder what the death toll of the disease will be.

A multitude of comments posted by concerned netizens have flooded the Internet recently, particularly after the latest H1N1 deaths of healthy young students. Some parents even kept schoolchildren at home as a precaution.

In response, health minister Chen Zhu tried to ease the mounting fear. "There is no need to panic and the pandemic is still well under control," he said last week.

The latest nationwide survey, however, showed that more than 80 percent of flu patients in the country tested positive for H1N1. In September, that figure was only about 20 percent across the nation.

The latest Ministry of Health tally showed that as of Nov 1, China has reported about 47,500 H1N1 flu cases on the mainland, including 104 severe cases and seven fatalities.

A 14-year-old middle school student in Changning city of central Hunan province died on Saturday, becoming the latest victim killed by the virus.

Experts are expecting the numbers to surge in most parts of China because the country has entered the peak flu season of autumn and winter.

About 10 to 20 percent of the population might get infected, estimated Liang Wannian, deputy director of emergency response office under the Ministry of Health.

Containing H1N1

Meanwhile, efforts to contain the outbreak and mitigate the potential impact, like averting concentrated outbreaks, have been intensified.

He Xiong, deputy director of the Beijing Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC), said the fatality rate is fairly low given the number of infections.

In late September, China rolled out its nationwide vaccination program. The priority groups were students, the elderly, medical workers and those holding important public service posts.

As the virus keeps spreading, more severe cases and deaths are unavoidable, which follows natural pattern as a virus evolves, he explained.

"At the moment, nothing that has happened is abnormal or unexpected," he told China Daily last week.

The public, however, is skeptical.

"Seemingly the virus is running wild and we're all a little bit scared of the pandemic," said Liu Jie, a 29-year-old civil servant in Beijing, who decided to get the H1N1 vaccination.

Previously she refused the shot for fear of potential side effects. "When the young man in Beijing died from H1N1, I just changed my mind," Liu said. "The risk from the virus is far more severe than from the vaccine."

National emergency in US

US President Barack Obama issued an H1N1 national emergency in late October, and this also prompted Liu to change her mind. World Health Organization (WHO) officials, however, clarified briefly that the US declaration didn't indicate worsening conditions either in US or the world.

"In China, the pandemic has so far evolved steadily towards more cases overall, including more severe cases and more deaths," said Vivian Tan, press officer with the WHO Beijing Office last week.

"As the H1N1 virus itself has shown no signs of mutation, current measures by Chinese authorities are appropriate," she stressed.

Learning about the flu

At present, top priorities for flu containment by Chinese health authorities include educating the public, particularly the groups with a higher risk, about prevention measures. Another priority is rapid treatment of patients, particularly those with heavy symptoms.

Some 80 percent of new infections in Beijing happened on school campuses, said officials at the local health bureau. More than 90 percent of the patients were younger than 30.

Public service announcements encouraging the general public to practice good hygiene, including frequent hand washing, were regularly aired on TV stations throughout the country.

"These efforts need to be maintained at a high level," added Tan.

The organization predicted yesterday that the H1N1 flu epidemic may not end until 80 percent of global population gets infected. Liang Wannian warned in August that tens of millions of people in China could get infected by H1N1 with millions seeking medical help.

"That would stress China's limited intensive care capacity, even in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai," warned Zeng Guang, chief epidemiologist with China CDC.

"We have to plan for the worst and make the best preparations," said deputy director He Xiong.

Getting ready for H1N1

All parts of China are gearing up for the acute challenge: expanding the vaccination schedule, training medical workers, and organizing supplies including antiviral drugs and other medical equipment like respiratory machines.

Since the onset of the potentially deadly virus on the mainland in May, the State Council has held several executive meetings to address the pandemic and allocated five billion yuan for flu prevention and control.

"At maximum treatment capacity in Beijing, we are able to deliver quality medical care for one third of the patients, particularly the severe cases," He said.

In the worst-case scenario, when the number of severe patients exceeds the hospitals' capacity, public venues including schools and hotels would be used to accommodate patients, he added.

"We will try every means to prevent that from happening," he said. "So far most of the H1N1 patients just showed mild symptoms."

Tan also urged the Chinese government to strengthen health facilities, making sure there is enough capacity to cope with the potential increase in severe cases without neglecting other non-H1N1 patients.

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