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The Warsaw Voice » Society » October 28, 2009
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Poland Braces for Flu Epidemic
October 28, 2009 By Witold Żygulski   
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Polish health authorities are preparing a large-scale vaccination campaign to combat a potential flu epidemic in coming weeks-possibly including the new A/H1N1 influenza, known as swine flu. But the campaign may flop; despite warnings from physicians, the percentage of Poles who get vaccinated against ordinary flu has not risen above single digits for years.

Autumn is the season when influenza reaches its peak in Poland. This is due both to weather conditions and the return of children and university students to schools and universities in September and October. As a result, the probability of getting infected through contact with ill individuals increases considerably because the disease spreads easily wherever people congregate.

This year, the situation is much worse compared with past flu seasons. More than 7,700 flu cases were recorded in the second week of October, almost twice as many as in October 2008, according to the National Institute of Hygiene. On Oct. 14, Jan Orgelbrand, deputy chief sanitary inspector, appealed to people who have flu symptoms to stay home and avoid work or school. "The flu season has definitely begun," Orgelbrand said. "People will be getting ill with influenza, including swine flu. In order to avoid getting infected, preventive measures are key."

Influenza caused by the H1N1 strain has been recorded in Poland since May. The first case was a female tourist who had returned from Mexico. A total of 165 H1N1 cases were recorded in Poland by Oct. 7, according to the Central Sanitary Inspectorate. So far there have been no fatal cases.

Since it appeared in early spring 2008, the H1N1 influenza strain has killed 3,917 people in 191 countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported in early October. Data collected by WHO in around 20 countries indicates that the strain is becoming increasingly strong and was responsible for 76 percent of flu cases reported between Sept. 6 and 12. The Americas are the most severely affected: more than 130,000 H1N1 cases and almost 3,000 deaths have already been recorded there.

In Europe, the number of reported H1N1 flu cases exceeds 80,000, with 192 deaths. The European Commission approved in September two vaccines against this strain -Pandemrix from GlaxoSmithKline and Focetria from Novartis-and added a third vaccine Oct. 6-Celvapan from Baxter AG. The vaccines can be used in the EU's 27 member countries and in Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein. The WHO expects the pharmaceutical companies to produce around 3 billion doses annually. The WHO will be coordinating the distribution of the vaccine, starting with 300 million doses in November, although at least nine EU countries have already launched their vaccination programs. The WHO has recommended that health service staff should be vaccinated first.

Poland has been working to determine the number of people to be vaccinated against H1N1 influenza and estimate to the cost of storage, transport and distribution of the vaccine since the end of the summer. The Health Ministry expects that around 2 million people will be vaccinated in Poland.

In line with WHO guidelines, the ministry has defined groups of especially vulnerable people who should be vaccinated first: children over six months of age, pregnant women with other conditions, healthcare workers and workers of other services important for the functioning of the state, like police and the military.

Another problem in Poland, one much more serious than the new strain of influenza, is the very low percentage of people who take vaccines against traditional flu. The percentage has remained in single digit figures for years; last year it was under 6 percent. Prof. Lidia Brydak, head of the national flu pandemic center, says vaccination against seasonal flu helps protect the person against the H1N1 strain as well. "We know that this vaccine may prevent reassortment [the mixing of the two influenza strains-the seasonal flu strain and the H1N1 strain]," Brydak says.

Many specialists believe the main barrier to a more widespread vaccination campaign against seasonal flu is that patients usually have to pay for it themselves. The price of vaccination is zl.40 to zl.50, including consultation with a doctor who determines whether the patient can be safely vaccinated. Some physicians have appealed for a universal, free flu vaccination program, but due to a shortage of money in the national budget, such a program is highly unlikely. However, local governments in many Polish regions offer free vaccination for the elderly, usually those aged over 60 or 65.

Simmoney Kloszewski contributed to this report
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