The increasing number of H1N1 infected people being reported over the mass media every hour makes people nervous. Many parents worry about their young children as they are vulnerable to this disease. Even if someone is having a slight cold, people around him or her view them with suspicion. Hygienic supplies are sold out day after day.
Many companies that produce health supplementary food products are making money by taking advantage of the spread of swine flu by exaggerating that their products will boost a person’s immune system. Because it’s the only company that produces the influenza vaccine in Korea, there has been a noticeable increase of Korea Green Cross Corporation in the Korea Composite Stock Price Index (KOSPI). In addition, we can see the ripple effect that swine flu is creating in every corner through our society.
Although the majority of H1N1 patients continue to experience mild illness, the virus can cause very severe illnesses and even fatalities. So for the high risk groups (children, patients with chronic conditions, pregnant women, elderly, and health care workers) the result is usually fatal. Fortunately, the World Health Organization (WHO) found no signs that the virus has mutated to a more virulent or lethal form. We don’t have to panic about it. But we must be perfectly prepared for the worse situation. The impact of a pandemic during the second wave could worsen if larger number of people become infected.
As the saying goes, “It is best to err on the safe side.” Even if the National Treasury may lose some money, protecting the people from such a disease is the duty of the government. From 50 to 100 million people were killed worldwide by the 1918 pandemic caused by the influenza A virus strain of a subtype of the H1N1. A government agency is promoting steps for preventing influenza as well as hygiene cautions. But people want an absolutely reliable solution and that is the vaccine for pandemic influenza A (H1N1) virus.
International Situation of H1N1
On September 1st, 2009 the W.H.O. reported that about a quarter of a million people were infected by the H1N1 virus and 2837 patients had died because of the virus. Among the total dead, 652 of the cases happened in the preceding week. The countries in the southern hemisphere show a higher death rate compared with the northern hemisphere.
As the Southern Hemisphere winter season ends the activity of the disease in most parts of the country decreased. This indicates that the duration of the H1N1 influenza season in the Southern Hemisphere may be similar in length to an average seasonal influenza season. Most of fatal cases happened in neighbor countries of Mexico where the swine flu was first identified. Argentina and Brazil have the highest number of fatalities in South America.
On May 2nd, 2009 the first H1N1 patient in South Korea was confirmed. By the end of August the total of patients was recorded at 4235, after a week, it increased to 6235. Newly confirmed H1N1 patients were 691 on September 8th and then increased by another 677 the very next day. Just in two days about 1400 more patients were confirmed. On September 18th, an 81 years old H1N1 patient died. As she was already suffering from many chronic diseases, an immediate cause is still being investigated.
If H1N1 is direct reason of her death, she became the 9th person to die in Korea. After the beginning of school year, many elementary, middle and high school students were infected. To prevent it spreading further, many schools were closed temporarily. However, most of the private institutes continued lessons regardless of the situation. As a result, the number of H1N1 patients has increased gradually in the private institutes. It is predicted that Chu-suk and the upcoming winter season will experience a peak of the epidemic, subsequently; the government has ordered a 24 hour emergency service to 295 assigned regional hospitals
Because this disease is spreading over the country, tamiflu prescriptions are increasing simultaneously. Tamiflu is an anti viral drug that slows the spread of the influenza virus between cells in the body. It has been used to treat and prevent the influenza virus A and B infections in over 50 million people since 1999 and is currently marketed by Hoffmann-La Roche, which is a Swiss pharmaceutical corporation.
The domestic stock supply of the antiviral drugs for influenza is 5% of population and will become 11% by the end of this year. The majority of H1N1 patients demand Tamiflu, however, the occurrence of the resistance to Tamiflu cases have been diagnosed over the world. Doctors at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say, “The drugs Tamiflu and Relenza should only be used to treat people who are sick and at the high risk for complications” The CDC recommends prompt treatment with Tamiflu or Relenza for anyone who is hospitalized with a flu-like illness, as well as treatment at the first sign of flu symptoms in high-risk people.
Better Safe than Sorry
Among the domestic drug manufacturers, Green Cross Co. is the only one which has a factory that produces the vaccine. The factory was built just 3 months ago in Hwasun-gun Jeonnam. That means before July 2nd there wasn’t any factory which could produce the vaccine for influenza in South Korea.
Should we be relieved about the fact that at least now we have a vaccine factory? Actually 3 years ago, there was a chance that we could have already had such a factory. According to the president of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Korea, Kim Jin-ho, GSK tried to build a vaccine factory in Gyeonggi-do which would have produced vaccines for the whole of Asia.
But the Korean government insisted on building it far from Seoul, GSK eventually gave up the plan. The scale of investment was several hundred billion won and the factory’s total output of the vaccine was 50 million doses. Unlike the South Korean government, Canada attracted GSK’s investment and built a vaccine factory. As a result, we are now importing 3 million doses of vaccine from the GSK laboratory in Canada.
Clinical trial process of the vaccine made by Hwasun factory started on September 7th and 480 people including 240 elderly were vaccinated. Vaccinations for priority groups will start around the middle of November.
The government is planning to produce 7 million doses of the vaccine at Hwasun factory and import 3 million doses by the end of the year. Only 20% of the Korean people can be vaccinated this year. It’s not even enough for the high risk groups. What is different from other countries? GSK’s factory can produce 600 million doses of the vaccine in case of an emergency.
Among them 300 million of these vaccines were pre-purchased by the U.S., England, France and other countries. After the bird flu outbreak happened, some nations secured vaccines for 50% of the population. At that time, the president of GSK Korea, Kim Jin-ho, told the Korean government about the need for pre-purchasing of the vaccine but they didn’t pay attention and only pre-purchased 60 thousands doses.
In reference to England by the end of this year all their population can be vaccinated. That’s one of the reasons why citizens of some countries can be calm in the middle of the pandemic, unlike the citizens of unprepared countries.
Some point out that poor public health and medical care infrastructures has worsened the situation. Based on data from 2007, the percentage of national hospitals in OECD countries is Norway (100%), U.K. (95.8%), Italy (78.9%), Taiwan (35.6%), U.S. (33.5%), Japan (30.7%) and Korea (10%). Because the H1N1 virus is very infectious, isolation wards for H1N1 patients are important.
There are only 197 assigned isolation wards among national hospitals in Korea. So, only a few of the confirmed patients are able to receive isolated medical treatment. Because there are a lot more private hospitals than national hospitals, we have a lack of facilities for the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases.
The government suddenly assigned hospitals which weren’t prepared for the H1N1 patients. Some of them don’t even have isolation wards. However, the government said they will cut the budget for health services next year. Preventing diseases is directly related to national security; therefore, the complacency of the government may cost many people their lives!