Health officials in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) are calling on residents to get vaccinated against the H1N1 virus (“swine flu”) after 25 deaths in recent weeks.
Over 700 infections of H1N1 have been reported in the West Bank and 20 in the Gaza Strip, and officials say the number of recent H1N1-related deaths is almost certainly underreported.
“The virus has claimed 25 lives to date, three of them in Gaza, and we are in the midst of vaccinating,” Asad Ramlawi, general director of primary health care at the Palestinian Ministry of Health, told IRIN.
He said 25,000 people had been vaccinated as part of a regular programme over the last few months, and an additional 25,000 have been vaccinated since the outbreak.
“Right now we are targeting patients at risk of heart disease, diabetes, blood diseases and of course, pregnant women. We are seeing a good response to our efforts to raise awareness [of the importance of] getting vaccinated,” he said, saying they had good stocks of the vaccine in reserve.
Young children, babies and infants under five, old people and pregnant women are considered to be at the highest risk of contracting H1N1, an infection caused by an influenza virus believed originally to have infected the lungs of pigs.
The latest surge of cases was detected in the West Bank in early December 2012 but the first cases in Gaza came to light in mid-January, with reported deaths in the Jenin, Qalqilya and Hebron regions, according to Palestinian health officials.
In the 2009 pandemic, dozens of Palestinians died from H1N1.
And elsewhere in the region?
In Israel, a twenty-eight-year old woman died on Monday night of H1N1 at a hospital in Beer Sheba.
Previously, the only reported H1N1 death was of a three-year-old boy in the city of Petach Tikva in mid-January, the first reported in the country since the winter of 2009- 2010 when 96 Israelis died.
Since then, a large-scale vaccination campaign has been carried out. Four unvaccinated women have been hospitalized with H1N1 in the past few weeks.
Israeli Ministry of Health spokeswoman Einav Shimron- Greenbaum told IRIN H1N1 in Israel is “at a medium level as of now; we are aware of the reported deaths in the PA [Palestinian Authority] and are monitoring the situation, as we are with worldwide reports of the situation.”
In 2009 the World Health Organization declared that the H1N1 strain of the flu virus had become pandemic. It went on to cause the deaths of at least 18,500 people before the pandemic was declared over in August 2010.
According to statistics, about 500 people die from the common flu every year in Israel.