Ministry officials said Feb. 5 that a ministry task force set up last month to handle such national crises as the scandal involving HIV-tainted blood products will take up the issue of depleted flu vaccine stocks in its second meeting on Feb. 14.

The group aims to map out specific measures to ensure sufficient supplies of the vaccine are available before next winter, the officials of the Health and Welfare Ministry said. Historically, serious flu epidemics occur periodically as the virus mutates into a tougher structure. The previous epidemic, in 1957, killed 7,700 people in Japan alone.

Vaccination is the only known way to fight off a flu epidemic. It was mandatory for children until 1994.

The officials said the task force will discuss the production and effectiveness of the vaccine, its side effects and how to finance a vaccination program. It will also consider ways of strengthening cooperation with other countries also preparing for a possible flu epidemic, they said. “If a new strain of influenza hits the world, each country will be putting priority on securing enough vaccine for its people, so it will be hard to rely on vaccine from foreign countries,” said Tomohisa Shimoda, chief of the ministry’s Health Science Division.

“Japan must be quick in hammering out a way to cope with this. We would like to make it in time for next winter,” said Shimoda, who also chairs the task force. Across the world, outbreaks of new strains of flu have occurred every 10 to 40 years and medical experts say a flu epidemic caused by a new virus could hit in the next few years.

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