Serbia starts swine flu inoculations amid confusion (News Feature)
By Boris Babic Dec 17, 2009, 13:02 GMT
Belgrade - Serbia began inoculations against swine flu on Thursday, amid what has been described as a 'deteriorating' health situation and waning public concern over the epidemic.
The first batch of 170,000 vaccines, supplied by the Swiss company Novartis, has been reserved for the high-risk part of the population, such as infants, pregnant women, the elderly and the chronically ill.
The rest of the purchased 3 million vaccination units is due to arrive starting in January and ending in March.
The Health Ministry estimated that around 70 per cent of the most at-risk persons can be inoculated from the first batch and has called them to take the shots in their local health care provider.
Among those to receive the jabs immediately are key medical staff, including Health Minister Tomica Milosavljevic, who at noon was the first person in Serbia to receive the flu shot.
Serbian health authorities have confirmed 437 cases of the H1A1 flu as of Wednesday and 37 fatalities related to the infection. Most of the deceased were patients suffering chronic illnesses.
Nevertheless, Belgrade said the epidemiological picture was 'deteriorating' and earlier this week ordered schools to go to the winter recess a week early, starting on Friday and truncating the first semester.
School are due to start a week early, on January 11. That decision drew grumbles from teachers, parents who made plans for winter holidays and also tourist agencies, who now face cancellations.
'I have a deposit on a reservation in a hotel in the Italian Alps, but can now only cancel it, or have my children lose a week of school,' says entrepreneur Sasa Nikolic, 39.
Serbian students already had a week scrapped from their school calendar in November, when the Health Ministry extended the autumn recess in a bid to decelerate the rate of the flu epidemic.
But despite warnings from the authorities, who even said they are considering a total ban on public gathering, concern over the vaccine may be lower than expected, the daily Press said this week.
Citing a telephone survey it conducted on more than 2,000 people, it said around 10 per cent of those polled said they would take the flu shots. Even politicians from the ruling coalition are also divided over the issue.
Infrastructure Minister Milutin Mrkonjic (of the Socialist party) said he intends to 'follow (Health Minister) Tomica's orders' and take the vaccine, while the leader of the nationalist Unified Serbia party, Dragan Markovic, scoffed at it.
'Nobody from our party will take it. Now they are preparing this goat flu, then they'll invent the horse or pigeon flu,' he told Press. 'But it does not mean Serbian citizens should not take shots.'
Contradictory reports on the possible effects of the vaccination are also likely to put many off from taking it.
'Mandatory medical check for inoculation,' the daily Blic said Thursday, warning that the patient must not have an 'acute condition' implying that it may become aggravated by the vaccine.
On the other hand, the newspaper Press on the same day raised the idea that the vaccination was very helpful indeed, speculating that those already infected with swine flu could be cured with just a shot.
Despite the emergency measures and calls for the inoculation, the flu has not been the most talked about issue on the street or in the internet.
Serbs are currently giving far more attention to the new traffic law, which introduced stiff fines for drivers and pedestrians alike.