LONDON (Reuters) - Health authorities across Europe are bracing for a third of their populations to become infected with the new swine flu virus this autumn, but do not plan to close schools or take other drastic measures to stop it.
Instead, they plan to educate people about hygiene, get vaccines out as soon as possible, and hope the H1N1 pandemic does not become deadlier than it has been.
Some 200,000 doses of vaccine have just been delivered in Britain by drug firm Baxter International and many other European countries are expecting it to arrive from October onwards. That should be just in time to prevent mass illness.
Companies making H1N1 vaccines include AstraZeneca’s MedImmune unit, GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis AG, CSL and Sanofi Aventis.
Epidemiologist Giovanni Rezza, head of Infectious Diseases at Italy’s Higher Health Institute said Italy, like Spain, France and others, aimed to vaccinate 30 to 40 percent of its population, a level he said was “practical and sensible.”
“You have to consider that the indirect impact would be enough to stop the virus from spreading quickly among the population,” he said.
France, where schools restart on September 2, unveiled its autumn swine flu plan this week, launching a month-long public information program of radio, television and Internet adverts urging people to keep clean and vigilant, and suggesting they should sneeze into their sleeves if they have no handkerchief to hand.
Slovenia and Austria have similar plans.
“All the teachers have been briefed ... and every household will get a leaflet with instructions on personal hygiene,” said Slovenia’s Health Ministry spokeswoman Irma Glaner.
In Spain, the socialist government plans to prioritize health workers and teachers when it gets a vaccine but has rejected opposition calls to delay the start of the new school term and a teachers union request for pregnant teachers to be allowed not to return until a flu vaccine arrives.
EUROPE AWAITS “WAVE OF TRANSMISSION”
Large-scale school closures, as in Britain when swine flu first began to take hold in April and May, are not on the agenda for any European government; a decision that health experts generally condone.
Although the virus causes mild symptoms in many people, some develop severe complications and deaths have occurred among pregnant women, young children, people with underlying health problems like obesity and diabetes and even healthy adults.
“It remains the case that this disease is not a killer, but it can kill,” England’s chief medical official Liam Donaldson said on Thursday.
The H1N1 strain has now spread to 177 countries, causing at least 1,799 deaths, the World Health Organization said.
Angus Nicoll, flu coordinator at the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) in Stockholm, pointed to southern hemisphere countries like Australia where the ECDC’s latest data show 147 people have died and 422 are in hospital with the virus, more than a fifth of them in intensive care.
”They have gone through an intense wave of transmission,“ Nicoll said. ”The numbers of people who have been infected in Europe are pretty moderate, but it seems inevitable to us that Europe should be preparing for an autumn and winter of transmission.
“There are countries like Spain, Germany, the UK and others, where we have got low-level transmission now. And it won’t take a lot to tip them over into accelerated transmission.”
The new school year, which begins in countries across Europe in the next few weeks, could be the trigger.
Young children can spread any virus from schools and daycare centres, and health and education authorities plan to push hygiene and information about the disease high up the school agenda.
The government in the United States, where swine flu was first seen in March in California, is not recommending school closures either, nor the widespread use of antiviral drugs such as Roche AG’s Tamiflu or GlaxoSmithKline’s Relenza to prevent spread. Doctors say they should be saved for people most at risk of complications or death -- pregnant women or people with asthma or diabetes.
Additional reporting by Anna Willard in Paris, Stephen Brown in Rome, Alexandra Zawadil in Vienna, Manca Ulcar in Ljubljana and Judy MacInnes in Madrid; Editing by Maggie Fox and Jon Hemming