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February 18, 2010

WHO: Add swine flu to regular flu vaccine

LONDON (AP) — The World Health Organization is recommending that swine flu be added to regular flu vaccines next season.

The swine flu pandemic virus, or H1N1, emerged too late last year to be added to the regular flu vaccine, and a separate vaccine was needed.

For this year's northern hemisphere flu season, however, the two vaccines should be combined, WHO flu chief Keiji Fukuda said Thursday after the agency met this week to decide which strains should be recommended to drug makers for vaccines.

But including protection against swine flu in the usual vaccine doesn't mean the pandemic has ended. The WHO expects swine flu will remain a significant threat.

"The recommendation to put the (swine flu) virus into the vaccine for the fall and winter is really a separate issue from whether the pandemic is over," Fukuda said.

Other experts agreed. "I wouldn't write the obituary for H1N1 just yet," said Michael Osterholm, a flu expert at the University of Minnesota. He said pandemic viruses in the past have caused waves of disease up to three years after the first outbreak.

Flu vaccines usually have three virus strains — which experts decide on after estimating which strains made the most people sick last season. Pharmaceutical companies and national authorities decide whether all three strains should go into the same vaccine or whether they should be split into different vaccines.

In September, the WHO recommended the swine flu vaccine be included in the southern hemisphere's next flu vaccine.

The WHO will hold a meeting of experts Tuesday to discuss whether the pandemic has peaked, Fukuda said. Such an announcement, however, would have little practical effect; countries like the U.S. and Britain have already scaled back their swine flu response and cases have dropped sharply.

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