With the number of flu cases having risen steadily over the past three weeks, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) yesterday alerted the public to prepare for a possible flu epidemic this winter and urged the country's unvaccinated toddlers and seniors to get a jab immediately.
Last week alone there were an average of 32.1 cases of flu infection for every doctor reporting to the center, a 20 percent increase from a week earlier.
The figure was also higher than the 29.3 cases reported during the same period last year, according to the center.
Cooler winter conditions are allowing flu viruses to spread at accelerated pace, doctors said.
"As it is getting colder, the number of patients in our hospital saw a ten-fold jump," warned Huang Li-min (黃立民), chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at National Taiwan University Hospital.
According to Huang, only one or two samples were found to contain flu virus among the 80 throat swabs the hospital collected for lab analysis each week last month. Yet the hospital's lab identified 10 virus-positive samples last week alone.
"The scope of the flu is widening. Just think of the rising number of outpatients in the diagnosis room and the virus-positive swabs in the lab. They are all alarm bells," Huang added.
"Usually, the flu peak arrives around Christmas here. Yet the annual epidemic comes later this year. From our survey, we estimated that Taiwan will have its flu peak by the Lunar New Year," said Lin Ting (林頂), the center's deputy director-general.
With a surplus of flu vaccines, the center urged the unvaccinated to get the free shots as soon as possible. The center's data showed that 18,000 doses of flu vaccines for babies under the age of three and 200,000 doses for adults still remain untouched in local health bureaus.
The center has eased restrictions and allowed people aged above 50 to get the free vaccination. As part of the high-risk groups, poultry farmers and health worker are also eligible for the free jab.
Health officials warned that only 58 percent of the country's 38,800 poultry farmers went into hospitals to get vaccinated. "The percentage is alarmingly low. All poultry farmers should be shielded from the flu epidemic, since they are exposed to bird flu in their daily work," said Yan Jer-jea (顏哲傑), director of the center's immunization division The warning came amid a recent spate of bird flu infections in Vietnam and Thailand, two countries frequented by Taiwanese tourists.
On Monday, Vietnam confirmed that the lethal H5N1 strain of bird flu killed a 17-year-old boy, bringing the toll to 29 since the first outbreak hit the region's poultry industry in December 2003.
Thailand also found new cases of bird flu in two provinces last week, prompting the Thai authorities to issue an alert to poultry farmers.
If the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus were to merge with a human flu virus, health officials worried, it could produce a strain capable of sweeping through a human population without immunity, possibly killing millions worldwide.
"If a person contracts flu and avian flu at the same time, we fear that the virus' gene sequences will be reassembled. A new virus strain will emerge. Once this happens, no one has the antibody against the latest mutated virus," said Yan.