Britain plans to vaccinate half the population against swine flu by the end of the year, as health officials in Russia warned the virus could spread across the vast country in the coming months. As more than 100 British students and teachers were quarantined in Beijing over fears they may have A(H1N1), Andy Burnham, the health secretary, told legislators the government expected to receive the first supplies of a vaccine next month.
Russia, which so far has only officially recorded nine cases of swine flu, urged all citizens to get vaccinations against the virus that Israel warned could hit a quarter of the population there within a matter of months. The worldwide death toll gathered pace, with Argentina announcing a total of 165 fatalities, making it the nation with the second highest number of swine flu deaths after the United States.
The US territory of Guam announced its first swine flu-related death and the neighbouring Northern Mariana Islands reported its first two A(H1N1) cases, showing the virus has spread to the remote corners of the Pacific Ocean. The World Health Organization said on Friday the virus was moving around the globe at "unprecedented speed." It said it would no longer keep a global tally of flu cases, instead tracking the pandemic through newly affected territories.
Britain is the worst-hit territory in Europe, with estimates of 55,000 new cases of the A(H1N1) virus last week. In London, Mr Burnham told the House of Commons that two contracts had already been signed with manufacturers to supply enough vaccines for the entire population, with half of the doses ready next month. "According to their delivery schedules, we should begin receiving supplies from August, with enough becoming available for at least 30 million people by the end of the year," he said.
Should the swine flu epidemic worsen, the British economy could contract as much as 7.5 per cent this year, the Ernst & Young ITEM Club group of economists said. With China keen to contain the virus, after the experiences with Sars and bird flu, about 180 foreign students and teachers were in quarantine in Beijing today, with about a dozen hospitalised after testing positive for A(H1N1). "We can confirm that a group of 111 British schoolchildren and teachers (from various schools in the UK) are being held in quarantine in a hotel in Beijing," the British embassy in Beijing said in a statement.
The embassy said one group of students and teachers would be released later today, with the others free to go tomorrow. At least 71 American students were also under quarantine at the same Beijing hotel, Nicholas Phillips, a teacher from the US state of Oregon, said on Monday. Neither he nor the US embassy were immediately available for comment, but a hotel official said some of the Americans would be allowed to leave tomorrow.
The British embassy said 12 British children had been hospitalised while Mr Phillips said one of his students was in hospital. China has reported about 1,500 swine flu cases but so far no deaths. In Russia, public health chief Gennady Onishchenko said the government had registered "a sharp increase" in cases and that while all those affected thus far had contracted the virus abroad, home-grown cases were now possible.
"The virus is now not just Moscow's property but also that of the regions," he said. "I advise maximum vaccination," he added, warning citizens not to panic. The EU Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou meanwhile said in Lisbon that the organisation's executive arm would help members among the 27 member states that as yet have no vaccine stocks. Latin America also continued to be hard hit, with Argentina upping its death toll with 28 new fatalities and Panama announcing its first swine flu victim, a nine-month-old baby.
New deaths were also reported in Bolivia, El Salvador, Mexico, Paraguay and Peru, health officials said. The virus first broke out in Mexico in April and the vast majority of the deaths have been recorded in the Americas. * AFP