Japan to vaccinate medical workers for bird flu

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan plans to vaccinate 6,000 medical workers and quarantine officers with stockpiled bird flu vaccines to check their effectiveness and possible side-effects, the health ministry said on Tuesday.

The plan, which follows suggestions made by some lawmakers and experts that vaccinations take place before a feared flu pandemic, will be submitted to a panel of experts for approval on Wednesday, an official said.

If approved, vaccination will take place before the end of the fiscal year in March 2009, and mark the first case in the world in which the vaccines -- based on strains of the H5N1 virus from China and Indonesia -- have been given to such a large group of people prior to a possible pandemic.

Japan has stockpiled vaccines for 10 million people using strains of the H5N1 virus from China, Indonesia and Vietnam. So far the government’s stance has been to use them only after a breakout.

If the first vaccination is deemed effective, the ministry will consider vaccinating an additional 10 million people, mainly those involved in maintaining social infrastructure such as gas and electricity networks, the official said.

While it is impossible to predict what strain of the virus could trigger a pandemic, the main suspect is the H5N1 bird flu virus that has killed more than 200 globally.

The government estimates that in a case of a pandemic, a quarter of the population could be infected with the virus and that up to 640,000 people would die.

The stockpiled vaccines have already been approved in Japan and have been produced by the Research Foundation for Microbial Diseases of Osaka University and the Kitasato Institute, the ministry said.

There have been 238 human deaths globally from the H5N1 strain since 2003, with Vietnam and Indonesia accounting for most fatalities, the WHO said.

Reporting by Yoko Kubota; Editing by Alex Richardson