(Adds details from Hong Kong in paragraphs 16-17)
By Lucy Hornby and Jargal Byambasuren
ULAN BATOR/BEIJING, Nov 5 (Reuters) - The World Health Organisation has shipped urgent supplies of the influenza drug Tamiflu to Mongolia, as the country’s hospital system struggles to cope with a late but widespread outbreak of the H1N1 strain of flu.
Other Asian countries have begun vaccination programmes to help prevent the spread of H1N1, a new disease, but Mongolia has yet to receive its allotment of vaccines donated by wealthier nations and the spike in cases has hospitals struggling to cope.
The WHO sent over 45,000 doses of Tamiflu to Mongolia, which has had a rapid rise in reported cases of H1N1 since the first were detected in mid-October. The onset is tied to the start of winter, as Mongolians seal up their homes to keep out the cold.
Vaccine production has been slower than originally expected in the United States, delaying shipments to poorer countries [ID:nN27270273].
“Already Mongolia’s health system is quite strained, in terms of hospital capacity. The ministry is feeling the strain in terms of equipment, supplies and staff,” said Dr Salik Govind, the officer in charge at the World Health Organisation in Mongolia.
“It’s a difficult challenge because people live in rural areas and health capacity at smaller hospitals is not as good as in larger ones.”
Mongolia has confirmed 859 cases of H1N1 and six deaths, with cases reported in its far-flung aimags, or provinces, as well as the capital Ulan Bator.
It is allocating Tamiflu to high-risk patients, to allievate symptoms and reduce their likelihood of transmitting the disease. Mongolia previously had stockpiles of about 11,000 doses, half provided by the WHO in May.
The Mongolian government is now trying to buy additional vaccine doses, to supplement the 100,000 doses the WHO hopes to provide by the end of the year, Govind said.
Doctors in Ulan Bator said they had recommended anxious patients eat more horsemeat, to keep the winter flu at bay. Horsemeat prices have risen in the capital, where the government has also cancelled school and sports gatherings and shut cinemas for two weeks to slow the disease’s spread [ID:nPEK164665].
While Mongolia struggles, H1N1 has brought success to Sinovac Biotech (SVA.A), one of the designated vaccine producers in neighbouring China.
Sinovac plans to transfer its American Exchange-listed shares to the Nasdaq exchange, the China Daily said on Thursday.
Sinovac’s shares rose by 7.6 times in the first eight months of this year, shortly before it announced that China had approved its vaccine production. They closed on Wednesday at $7.90 a share, up four and a half times from the beginning of 2009.
China’s National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s top planning body, warned on Thursday against charging fees for the H1N1 vaccine, which China is distributing for free.
It also warned schools against forcing children to receive other influenza vaccines for a fee, while dispensing the free H1N1 shots.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, authorities said two million people would receive H1N1 flu vaccinations from next month given the winter flu risk. Three million vaccination shots have been ordered from Sanofi-Aventis at a cost of around $30 million with high risk groups to be targeted in the voluntary scheme.
Hong Kong also said the human swine flu virus had been detected in pigs for the first time, though no reassortment of the virus had been found, with little extra risk seen to humans.
Additional reporting by James Pomfret in Hong Kong; Editing by Sugita Katyal