x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Swine flu jab may be obligatory for pregnant women

A Ministry of Health official tells a public meeting that the UAE was now in the final stages of preparing its programme.

A pregnant woman receives an H1N1 vaccine in the US. The UAE is now in the final stages of preparing its vaccination programme.
A pregnant woman receives an H1N1 vaccine in the US. The UAE is now in the final stages of preparing its vaccination programme.

ABU DHABI // Pregnant women seem to be particularly affected by the H1N1 flu virus and vaccination may be made obligatory for them, a Ministry of Health official said yesterday. Dr Mahmoud Fikri, the head of the National Scientific Committee for H1N1, told a public meeting that the UAE was now in the final stages of preparing its vaccination programme as Haj was finished and pilgrims were no longer the priority group.

The meeting was also attended by Dr Keiji Fukuda, a special adviser on pandemic influenza for the World Health Organisation (WHO). Dr Fukuda praised the UAE for its handling of the pandemic. Dr Fikri, who is a senior member of the Ministry of Health, said pregnant women, healthcare workers, people with chronic diseases and children up to 18 would get priority for the vaccine. He said it would probably be obligatory for pregnant women because they had been most affected by the virus, but the final decision would be taken this week.

The UAE's committee was meeting last night to finish its vaccination action plan across all seven emirates. "We are following World Health Organisation recommendations for people who are more endangered," Dr Fikri said. "The first phase is pregnant women, then those with chronic diseases and then healthcare workers. It depends on the technical committee - they will decide." The WHO recommends that, because of the "substantially elevated" risk of a severe outcome in pregnant women infected with the pandemic virus, any licensed vaccine can be used in pregnant women.

Two of the six H1N1 deaths reported in the UAE were young women in the later stages of pregnancy. Both babies were born healthy by Caesarean section. The first H1N1 case in the UAE was a man who had recently returned from a trip to Canada in May. The Ministry of Health announced in June that the vaccine would also be mandatory for all schoolchildren. The director general of the ministry at the time said it was in line with WHO recommendations and was a "sensible" decision. It is unclear whether this is still the case as the WHO recommendations have evolved with more knowledge of the virus.

Pregnant women are 10 times more likely than the general population to be admitted to an intensive care unit if they contract the virus, the WHO reported. According to a report by the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on immunisation at the WHO, between seven and 10 per cent of all hospitalised H1N1 cases are pregnant women in their second or third trimester. The group said that, as of October 17, there were 414,000 confirmed H1N1 cases globally and almost 5,000 deaths, but the actual number was expected to be much higher - many countries have stopped confirming individual cases.

Dr Fikri said the Ministry of Health was not keeping count of all cases as many people were not given a laboratory diagnosis. He said the number of people in the UAE affected by the virus was probably on a par with the global average. "People should not be panicking at all," he said. "There are two things to remember - this is treatable and there is a vaccine." Dr Fukuda said it was impossible to predict the global impact of the virus but previous pandemics showed that around a third of a country's population can expect to be affected.

Officials at the meeting, at the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, announced the topics for the upcoming Crisis and Emergency Conference. The conference, from January 11 to 13, will highlight public health and national security issues and focus on the "pressing need" for integrating emergency response into national security and health care challenges. Topics will include volunteering during disasters and emergencies, cyber security and trauma care. It is being organised by the National Crisis and Emergency Management Authority, which hosted the forum yesterday.

munderwood@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Hassan Hassan