x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

No H1N1 vaccine before start of school

The vaccine for fighting the H1N1 virus will not be ready before state schools start the new term in September, doctors say.

The amount of swine flu vaccine available in the UAE is not certain, officials said, but health workers should be among the first vaccinated.
The amount of swine flu vaccine available in the UAE is not certain, officials said, but health workers should be among the first vaccinated.

DUBAI // The vaccine for fighting the H1N1 virus will not be ready before state schools start the new term in September, doctors said yesterday. But because the UAE has not yet recorded a case of locally transmitted swine flu, experts said people "should not worry".

Last week the Ministry of Health announced that it would introduce mandatory vaccination for all schoolchildren over the age of five. Dr Ali bin Shakar, director general of the ministry and chairman of the committee against swine flu, said it was part of a comprehensive plan to prevent the spread within the Emirates and protect the most vulnerable. According to Dr Lalit Mohan Uchill, medical director of the Welcare Ambulatory Care Centre in Dubai, the vaccine is not likely to be in the UAE until after schools reopen, but the risk is still small.

"Yes, there is a possibility of the virus getting into schools, but it is a minimal chance," he said. "By the time people return from holidays they are likely to have been back in the country long enough to be diagnosed and treated before they return to schools." According to the Ministry of Health, all swine flu cases in the UAE have involved people returning from abroad, which Dr Uchill said meant there was very little risk to children who remained in the country for the summer.

"The vaccine has to go all the same procedures as other influenza vaccines," Dr Uchill said. "It will take time and will not be here by September. But parents should not worry." He said vaccinating all schoolchildren would still be worthwhile if the virus showed no sign of receding, because "more and more people will fall ill". Experts from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced last week that pregnant women were at special risk from the H1N1 virus and should be vaccinated first.

It had been suggested by a World Health Organisation (WHO) strategic advisory committee that health care personnel should be first in line for the vaccine. But as the virus is diagnosed in more people, experts learn more about who is most vulnerable. Dr Uchill said that despite the latest recommendations, health workers should still be a priority. "Of course," he said. "They are in very close proximity with those infected. In a pandemic or serious epidemic, 25 to 40 per cent of health care workers could be too sick to work."

A statement released on July 29 after a meeting of the CDC's advisory committee on immunisation practices outlined the specific groups that should be vaccinated first. It included pregnant women, people who live with or care for children younger than six months and health care and emergency services staff. The statement said: "The committee does not expect that there will be a shortage of novel H1N1 vaccine, but availability and demand can be unpredictable. There is some possibility that initially the vaccine will be available in limited quantities."

Dr Ali al Numairy, president of the Emirates Medical Association, which has about 5,000 members, said there was no need to rush to vaccinate medical staff because of the current status of transmission in the UAE. "We do not have a single case that has been generated inside the UAE," he said. "No one should be panicking. There are recommendations for other people to be vaccinated first, but if it is feasible and realistic then yes, healthcare workers should be vaccinated."

He said the numbers of vaccine doses available would determine who will be vaccinated first. The Ministry of Health was not available yesterday to comment on the UAE's order for the vaccine. According to the Eastern Mediterranean office of the WHO, there are more than 2,000 cases in the region. Saudi Arabia has the most, with almost 600 reported cases, Egypt has the second most with 274. The UAE has about 125.

munderwood@thenational.ae