Rodrigo Abd/AP

Swine Flu Vaccine in the Works

May 15, 2009 04:00 PM
by Cara McDonough
Swine flu cases continue appearing as the virus evolves, prompting a World Health Organization meeting to address decisions surrounding creation and distribution of a vaccine.

Questions Still Loom

The Associated Press reports that pharmaceutical companies are prepared to start producing a vaccine for swine flu, but crucial questions must first be answered. In Geneva, vaccine producers and health experts joined forces at the World Health Organization (WHO) to consider how much vaccine to make, how to distribute it and to whom.

"No big decisions" have been reached yet, WHO flu chief Keiji Fukuda told members of the press, but the organization's Director-General Margaret Chan expects to have more information next week.

"These are enormously complicated questions, and they are not something that anyone can make in a single meeting," Fukuda allowed.

Some say investing in a swine flu vaccine is an absolute necessity at this point, particularly because a more severe strain of the virus could reappear, according to AP.

At the end of April, WHO raised the swine flu pandemic alert level to 5, an advisement to all countries to initiate preparedness plans for a potential "mild pandemic."

As of May 15, the number of swine flu cases in the United States has reached 4,714 cases across 47 states (including the District of Columbia), with four fatalities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Background: Evaluating the severity of swine flu

The regular flu (whichever strain is prevalent in a particular year) infects between 5 and 20 percent of Americans annually, causing about 36,000 deaths. Swine flu has not yet run its course, but clearly cases and deaths would have to spike for the strain to match the severity of a typical flu season, reported the Los Angeles Times.  

Dr. Christopher Olsen, a molecular virologist who studies swine flu at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, told the Los Angeles Times that any flu-related death is "heartbreaking," but that we "do need to keep this in perspective."

Historical Context: Similarities to 1918 Flu

The swine flu outbreak is reminiscent of the Spanish Influenza of 1918, during which millions of people around the world died. There are two obvious similarities between the outbreaks: both started in springtime and most cases were reported in healthy adults.

Worrisome conclusions could be drawn. For example, the flu of 1918 appeared mild at first but later mutated, and reemerged as a deadly pandemic.

Opinion & Analysis: Could swine flu have been prevented?

Some experts say it's unlikely that swine flu will reach catastrophic levels.

Peter Palese, a microbiologist and influenza expert at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, told the Los Angeles Times, "There are certain characteristics, molecular signatures, which this virus lacks."

Others, including Debora MacKenzie of New Scientist, are more cautious. She suggests that swine flu is capable of becoming a pandemic because of its "rapid evolution." Furthermore, MacKenzie faults researchers for not paying more attention to the threat previously.

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