, BEIJING, Sept 21 – China kicked off mass vaccinations for swine flu Monday in Beijing, making it apparently the first nation in the world to start innoculating its population against the virus.
The Asian giant has been at the forefront of international efforts to produce an A(H1N1) influenza vaccine, with at least five companies receiving government approval for the work. Officials however have warned demand will exceed supply.
The capital’s municipal health bureau announced Monday in a statement on its website that Beijing "took the lead in China in starting A(H1N1) flu vaccinations".
Authorities kicked off the programme by immunising students due to take part in next week’s National Day celebrations, the statement said. Around 100,000 students are due to attend, according to recent state media reports.
"We believe that China is the first country in the world to start mass vaccinations for A(H1N1) flu," Vivian Tan, spokeswoman for the World Health Organisation in China, told AFP.
The health ministry has said it plans to vaccinate 65 million people, or five percent of the country’s total population of 1.3 billion, before year’s end.
A total of 500 medical workers in nearly 50 teams have been mobilised to go to schools across Beijing to give the students their shots, which are free and voluntary, the health bureau reported.
Apart from students taking part in festivities marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of communist China on October 1, medical workers, border inspection and transportation workers will also have priority.
The military and police, other kindergarten, elementary and middle school students and teachers, and those with chronic heart and lung diseases will also be given priority, according to the health ministry.
Shipments of vaccines have so far been distributed to eight provinces including Guangdong, Shandong, Sichuan and Hunan, where outbreaks have been the most severe, state media has reported.
Other nations are also preparing to vaccinate their populations against swine flu.
Australia is to start a mass adult immunisation programme on September 30, while the United States has bought 195 million doses of swine flu vaccine and will make shots available next month.
Britain, meanwhile, has received a first batch of 100,000 doses of swine flu vaccine, which could be approved for public distribution by early October.
On Monday, China had recorded 13,262 cases of A(H1N1) flu, according to the latest information released on the health ministry’s website. No deaths have yet been reported.
A top ministry official predicted earlier this month that tens of millions of people could be infected with the virus in China in the coming months, leading to "unavoidable" fatalities.
The virus has now spread to all of China’s 31 provinces and regions and 95 percent of the cases are being transmitted domestically, rather than via travellers from abroad.
By Friday, A(H1N1) flu had killed nearly 3,500 people worldwide, and while the Americas still have the highest death toll from the virus, cases are expected to increase in Asia as the northern hemisphere enters winter.
China — hit hard in the past by bird flu and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) — took immediate measures to prevent the new virus from entering the country when it was first uncovered in the Americas.
It subsequently came in for international criticism over its severe quarantine rules, but authorities defended the moves as necessary to fend off a mass outbreak of A(H1N1).