‘Developing countries ill-prepared for swine flu outbreak’

London, April 29 (IANS) Low and middle-income countries are less prepared than developed nations to fight an outbreak of swine flu, health experts say.

“Of particular concern is the ability of low-income and middle-income countries to detect and mitigate the effects of this new virus on their populations,” said The Lancet, an authoritative medical journal.

“History has shown that developing countries are disproportionately affected by an influenza pandemic,” it said in an editorial published Tuesday.

The journal cited an article it published in 2006, which used data from the 1918-20 Spanish influenza pandemic to predict that the next global influenza pandemic would kill 62 million people, with 96 percent of the deaths occurring in low-income and middle-income settings.

“Displaced populations, such as refugees, are especially at risk,” the Lancet said.

The comment comes amid evidence that global stockpiles of the two antiviral drugs that can treat swine flu – Tamiflu and Relenza – are mostly held by governments of wealthy countries such as the US, Britain, Canada, France, Italy and Japan.

Whereas Britain has enough doses to treat 30 million people – about half its population, Indian health authorities say they have about a million doses, which can treat 142,000 people, and have ordered another million.

The highest number of deaths – 159 – have occurred in Mexico, a middle-income developing country.

“Many countries have stockpiled antivirals, although how to deliver them within a maximum of 48 hours remains a huge challenge,” the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said in a statement.

“Preparedness levels in middle income and lower income countries remain low. Therefore, it is likely that this flu outbreak will also be a test for global solidarity,” it said.

The World Health Organization (WHO), which is meant to coordinate global action on health emergencies, says containment measures such as travel restrictions are not helpful at this stage because the virus is already widespread.

“Given the widespread presence of the virus, the director general considered that containment of the outbreak is not feasible. The current focus should be on mitigation measures,” the Geneva-based organisation said.

Work has also started on a vaccine for swine flu, the WHO said but added that it takes four to six months to develop such a vaccine.

“The world has moved closer towards a pandemic, but it is not yet inevitable. Crucially, containment of the outbreak is no longer feasible and countries should now be preparing to mitigate the effects of the virus on their populations,” The Lancet said.