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WHO Chief Promises H1N1 Vaccines for Poorer Nations

The head of the World Health Organization urged Asian health chiefs to continue health-care reforms despite the global economic downturn. Margaret Chan says the WHO is working to give poorer nations access vaccines to fight the H1N1 flu pandemic.

Health chiefs from 35 countries in the Asia-Pacific region opened their annual meeting in Hong Kong, their first major gathering since the H1N1 pandemic was declared in June.

High on the agenda for the delegates is how their countries can afford sufficient supplies of H1N1 vaccines to protect citizens, as the virus is expected to spread rapidly during the cooler season in the next few months.

The WHO is concerned about poorer nations' access to the vaccine and has pledged to provide limited supply. The Philippines is expected to receive an initial 100,000 doses, in a nation of 80 million people. China is relying on local vaccine manufacturers to meet demand. Singapore says it is buying one million doses from the manufacturer Glaxo Smithkline.

World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan says early clinical trials show a single dose is sufficient to inoculate people from the virus.

"If confirmed, this finding will literally double the amount of vaccine available," she said. "Here is the big question: will this result in more equitable distribution of vaccines? Let me assure you: I am pursuing this opportunity from several angles."

Three billion doses of the vaccine are expected to be produced annually. The United States, Britain, France, Australia and five other nations pledged to make 10 percent of their vaccine supply available to other countries in need.

H1N1 has killed more than 3,000 people worldwide since being identified earlier this year.

Chan urged the ministers to continue health care reforms despite the global economic downturn. She says the H1N1 pandemic underscores the need for greater access to public health systems, especially in poorer nations.

"Countries in this region are under strong pressure to reduce health budgets and extend user fees and co-payments," added Chan. "You are painfully aware of what this means: a further deterioration in access, equity, quality and utilization of health services."

She said governments need to focus on making their health care systems more efficient and on providing basic care to all.