WHO urges flu shots for vulnerable to cut down on SARS confusion

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WHO urges flu shots for vulnerable to cut down on SARS confusion

Canadian Press
Tuesday, September 02, 2003

GENEVA (CP) - The World Health Organization called on medical authorities worldwide Tuesday to launch an influenza vaccination campaign, saying it would help stop confusion in future outbreaks of SARS.

The WHO said flu symptoms - such as a high temperature - could be easily confused with those of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. Immunizing people against influenza will slash the number of cases of that illness and make it easier for doctors to detect SARS should the disease re-emerge.

Many respiratory diseases occur every winter, but flu is one of the most severe, infecting up to 20 per cent of the world's population, causing up to five million cases of severe illness and at least 250,000 to 500,000 deaths each year worldwide.

Health Canada estimates between 500 and 1,500 people die from influenza each year in Canada. But the Canadian Coalition for Influenza Immunization suggests the number is probably closer to 2,000, if deaths from pneumonia triggered by the flu are factored in.

While some vaccinated people may still contract mild flu, the vaccine does protect from the most dangerous consequence of the disease, pneumonia.

"Many experts are concerned that SARS might be a seasonal disease and return in the next few months," the Geneva-based organization said.

After surfacing in southern China in November, SARS infected more than 8,400 people worldwide and killed more than 900 people before subsiding in June. The disease claimed 44 lives in Toronto, which had the only major outbreak outside of Asia.

"The influenza vaccine does not prevent other respiratory diseases and, importantly, it does not provide protection from SARS," the WHO cautioned.

However, "high vaccination coverage may reduce the number of pneumonia cases caused by influenza (and) reducing pneumonia cases may also lower the possibility of misdiagnosing influenza as SARS," the agency said.

Flu vaccination programs should focus on the elderly and those who are already sick from other illnesses, as well as health workers, the WHO said.

"Suspected SARS cases can result in considerable disruption of health services as well as costly precautionary measures and investigations.

"Decreasing the number of pneumonia cases, through influenza vaccination, can help in the early identification of a true SARS outbreak - should the disease recur. Early detection is essential to keep the disease contained," the organization said.

In Canada, most people considered to be at-risk from influenza - such as the elderly - can get free flu shots. Ontario remains the only jurisdiction that offers a free universal influenza immunization program.

© Copyright  2003 The Canadian Press


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