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Plans to cancel vaccines

Probe into whether WHO had faked pandemic

The government is looking into the possibility of cancelling as many as 225,000 of the 425,000 swine flu vaccines ordered, as those who opted to take the jab remains low.

Only about 80,000 people have so far been vaccinated against the H1N1 virus, which has claimed the lives of five people in Malta and thousands around the world. The lack of response to the vaccine is also experienced in other European countries, which are looking at ways of getting rid of their extra stock.

Moreover, last Saturday the health authorities decided that children only needed one dose - rather than two, as originally announced - of the vaccine, a decision that is bound to leave Malta with even more extra doses on its hands.

The government has thus been forced to ponder even cancelling the over 200,000 doses that have still not arrived even if a spokesman for the Community Care Parliamentary Secretary said that "strictly speaking, Malta is obliged to take the whole lot".

The authorities ordered the H1N1 vaccine from pharmaceutical giant GSK in December after Malta was left without any stock when international pharmaceutical company Solvay failed to honour an agreement to provide jabs to counter the global pandemic.

The whole lot will cost the island between €3 and €3.5 million but the authorities will not divulge the exact amount.

"In terms of the agreement signed between GSK and the government, it is not allowed to divulge to third parties the exact price paid by the Maltese government," the spokes-man said.

Worries about the health impact of the pandemic virus, which from the outset was milder than anyone predicted, seem to have waned over the months. Moreover, the Council of Europe is investigating accusations that the World Health Organisation had faked the pandemic. Wolfgang Wodarg, head of health at the Council of Europe, said he could not understand how 1,000 cases in Mexico City, where 20 million live, could be considered to constitute a real pandemic.

While the WHO has rejected any accusations of undue influence by the pharmaceutical industry to declare a pandemic, some experts have stuck up for the organisation.

"I agree 100 per cent that it merited to be called a pandemic. It has all the characteristics of previous pandemics, including the ability to sweep the world quickly and become a dominant virus," London-based virologist John Oxford said.

The professor of virology at Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry said the world was fortunate that H1N1 had proven to be a mild virus but it was mistaken to think that the pandemic was over.

"We're very lucky that it's still a mild virus. It has not gone away. Everyone seems to be conducting a post mortem but the patient is not dead, unfortunately. It will return next year and we have to start thinking what will happen then," he said.

One worrisome scenario is that the virus will mutate and start affecting more elderly people, which have, so far, seemed relatively immune to the virus.

"Then it will appear to be more deadly simply because once people in that age group are infected with the flu virus, they die much more readily than any other group," he said, adding that in previous pandemics the first wave was often not the deadliest.

Nigel Lightfoot, chief adviser on emergency preparedness and head of the pandemic influenza programme at the UK's Health Promotion Agency, agrees that the WHO was right in calling a pandemic.

"We always have to err on the side of caution and be ready for what Mother Nature throws at us," he said.

Prof. Lightfoot, who had helped draw up Malta's pandemic plan, also agrees that we could see a spike in deaths if the virus starts affecting the elderly more.

He pointed out that, even among younger people, there have been a number of deaths. "It was milder than we feared but we still saw some serious effects, including deaths in pregnant women," he said, adding that at the height of the pandemic there were several hundred people in intensive care in British hospitals.

He said all the plans were made for a virus that could have been as bad as the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed millions all over the world.

"At the beginning, we did not really know how severe this virus was going to be. It turned out to be less severe and the number of deaths associated with it is lower than expected.

"But if the WHO had not declared a pandemic and the virus had mutated - something that these viruses are very capable of doing - then it would have been wrong. I think all the right decisions were made," he said.

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