Vaccination scheme to be expanded
Bid to prevent possible human pandemic and reduce influenza treatment costs
By Apiradee Treerutkuarkul
Thailand plans to extend the influenza vaccination programme to protect those in the high-risk group and prevent a possible outbreak of human flu pandemic in a bid to reduce the huge flu treatment costs involved annually.
Research on the economic evaluation of a seasonal influenza vaccine is currently being undertaken among 2,000 elderly people considered the most vulnerable group in Phitsanulok and Udon Thani to study if the vaccine programme could help cut the cost of treatment in the coming years.
The one-year study, scheduled for completion in August next year, is expected to identify the age group that should be prioritised for the national influenza vaccination scheme, enhance the prevention programme and financially help lighten the state's health-care and treatment burden, said Jongkol Lertiendumrong, a researcher attached to the International Health Policy Programme.
Out-patient treatment seekers for influenza and other acute respiratory illnesses exceed 900,000 cases each year. Up to 75,000 of the victims need hospitalisation due to severe complications, costing the state around two billion baht in treatment costs, according to a Public Health Ministry report.
An estimated 26 million Thais would contract the deadly virus and hundreds of thousands would die in the event of an outbreak, bringing the national economy to its knees.
More than 90% of influenza deaths have occurred in people aged 65 years or older, according to the World Health Organisation.
In Thailand, this group accounts for six million of the population.
However, health authorities are finding it difficult to provide free vaccine services due to an inadequate budget.
Only 100,000 of the elderly suffering from problems like asthma, bronchitis, cancer, diabetes, heart diseases, kidney failure are annually shortlisted for the anti-flu vaccines.
The other 300,000 doses are reserved for doctors and health professionals.
Dr Jongkol said the study's findings would enable health authorities to effectively expand the vaccination programme for a larger number of the population as part of preventive measures and preparations to deal with the worst case scenario - a flu pandemic.
"The current anti-flu measures and the vaccine stocks will not be enough if there really is an outbreak of a pandemic," warned virologist Prasert Thongcharoen.
He said the H5N1 strain of the flu virus could mutate into a more deadlier form that could enable it to jump from human to human, unlike today when it can only cause animal to human infections.
Scientific research and development of vaccines for local use was a must during the pre-pandemic phase along with the stockpiling of the anti-viral medicine oseltamivir so that the country would be in a position to cope with the severest outbreak, he added.
An industrial-scale vaccine manufacturing plant, under construction in Saraburi's Kaeng Khoi district, expected to be completed in three to five years, will have the capacity to produce enough doses for the entire population.