Anticipating a bigger wave of flu infections caused by a form of the virus that has become resistant to medication and vaccines, doctors and academics urged the government to switch to Asian versions of the flu vaccine.
Health officials last week said that with employees returning to work en masse after the Lunar New Year holiday, flu infections from increased human interaction in crowded places could spread fast.
Fear of the flu heightened when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said on Tuesday that two strains of the influenza type A had mutated slightly and developed resistance to the flu medication Tamiflu.
Tamiflu was still 30 percent effective in fighting the virus in October, but the virus has recently developed 100 percent resistance against the drug, the CDC said.
“The H1N1 strain [of the flu virus] has mutated into a form that is 70 percent variant from the vaccine, and the H3N2 strain is 40 percent variant,” said CDC deputy director-general Chou Jih-haw (周志浩), referring to the government-funded vaccine inoculation offered free of charge last year to children, the elderly and other high-risk groups.
CDC statistics showed that influenza type A comprised about 80 percent of all reported cases this winter. The type A H1N1 and H3N2 strains are currently circulating among flu victims.
“The H1 strain is weaker than the H3 strain. Although the H1 strain may infect more people [because of its mutation], it is less likely to make patients critically ill,” said Huang Li-min (黃立民), a pediatrician at National Taiwan University Hospital.
However, Huang said that he was not sure whether the H1N1 strain would mutate into a form that could result in critical conditions. He recommended that doctors prescribe two types of flu medication simultaneously, such as Tamiflu combined with Amantadine, another type of flu treatment.
This way, in case the virus strain has developed resistance to certain drugs, the medication may still be effective in controlling the disease, he said.
The flu virus undergoes minor changes from time to time, and a major variant emerges about every five years, said Su Ih-jen (蘇益仁), director of the National Health Research Institute’s division of clinical research.
Su urged the government to switch from European-made vaccines to Asian-made ones, saying the latter was more “up to date” with new virus strains.
“In 2005, we published research showing that the virus strains in Taiwan were two years ahead of Europe,” he said. “We should be using Asian versions of the vaccine to stay up to date with the disease.”
In response, Chou said the CDC would assess the need to switch to the vaccines used in China, which he said would be more effective in combating the ever-changing virus.