SARS-like virus kills British Patient

AP |  FEBRUARY 19, 2013

A patient being treated for a mysterious SARS-like virus has died, a British hospital said Tuesday.

Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, central England, said the coronavirus victim was also being treated for “a long-term, complex unrelated health problem” and already had a compromised immune system.

A total of 12 people worldwide have been diagnosed with the disease, six of whom have died.

The virus was first identified last year in the Middle East. Most of those infected had traveled to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Pakistan, but the person who just died is believed to have caught it from a relative in Britain, where there have been four confirmed cases.

The new coronavirus is part of a family of viruses that cause ailments including the common cold and SARS. In 2003, a global outbreak of SARS killed about 800 people worldwide.

Health experts still aren’t sure exactly how humans are being infected. The new coronavirus is most closely related to a bat virus and scientists are considering whether bats or other animals like goats or camels are a possible source of infection.

Britain’s Health Protection Agency has said while it appears the virus can spread from person to person, “the risk of infection in contacts in most circumstances is still considered to be low.”

Officials at the World Health Organization said the new virus has probably already spread between humans in some instances. In Saudi Arabia last year, four members of the same family fell ill and two died. And in a cluster of about a dozen people in Jordan, the virus may have spread at a hospital’s intensive care unit.

 

Estamos a Três mutações de uma Pandemia de Influenza

POR LUIS MIRANDA | THE REAL AGENDA | 13 MAIO 2012

A estrada para o inferno está pavimentado com boas intenções. Este é o mínimo que pode ser dito sobre a criação do vírus da gripe mais virulenta H5N1 em dois laboratórios em os EUA e na Holanda. É um caso em que a droga é pior do que a doença. Depois de muita celebração, os cientistas revelaram que suas experiências de mutação do vírus da gripe H5N1 tinham sido bem sucedidas, e os resultados foram obtidos por vários grupos na Europa e América. O que eles não parecem perceber é que os resultados destas experiências, como em qualquer pesquisa científica relevante, devem ser publicados para a comunidade médica e o público. A sua satisfação com os resultados das experiências, ou talvez a sua incompetência, cegou o bom senso, que regressou depois às suas cabeças. Então veio a censura.

Inicialmente, os procedimentos usados para produzir o vírus mutante da gripe aviária foram bloqueados depois que vários avisos foram emitidos pela possibilidade de que terroristas utilizaram os resultados para produzir uma arma biológica e usá-la em cidades com alta densidade populacional. Surpreendentemente, foi exatamente isso o que os cientistas fizeram. Eles criaram uma arma biológica em laboratório confirmaram os resultados reproduzindo eles em diferentes laboratórios, mostraram os resultados aos gestores da comunidade científica e autoridades do governo, e agora os resultados serão publicados para que qualquer pessoa com conhecimento cientifico crie uma pandemia.

O cientista-chefe e virologista Yoshihiro Kawaoka, que trabalha na Universidade de Wisconsin-Madison e na Universidade de Tóquio, confirmou que houve três alterações no gene original do vírus para aumentar a capacidade de “saltar” dos animais para seres humanos. Kawaoka e a sua equipa confirmaram que, após a aplicação de alterações no gene, o vírus pode facilmente ser transmitido entre mamíferos. O resultado final desta pesquisa é a produção de um vírus híbrido, que pode-se espalhar tão rápido quando o ar possa levá-lo ao redor do planeta. Não pode ser mais fácil do que isso, certo? Após a obtenção do novo vírus, os pesquisadores injetaram ele em furões, onde mutações no gene chamadas hemaglutininas – o H do nome do vírus H5N1 – fizeram o resto.

Segundo a pesquisa, uma das mutações observadas no vírus híbrido é semelhante a outra encontrada no vírus que afeta áreas do mundo, como o Oriente Médio, Ásia, Europa e África, onde já matou pelo menos 345 pacientes, mesmo sem ter sido modificado. As mortes são 345 casos notificados como mortes ou complicações do vírus, embora muitos outros casos, foram deixados de fora ou simplesmente não declarados. Os cientistas dizem que o trabalho realizado sobre o vírus H5N1 era necessário para aprender sobre como ele pode evoluir durante uma pandemia. Eles acreditam que após a primeira mutação no Oriente Médio, África e Ásia, o vírus vai continuar a mudar e que suas experiências e resultados podem ajudar a salvar muitas vidas, uma vez que haverá tempo para produzir uma vacina para combate-lo. Alguém vê um interes$e econômico? Este é o $, o perdão, o S no aspecto da saúde que poucas pessoas sabem do experimento. Como se a ameaça que um vírus como este possa ser transmitido para os seres humanos não fosse perigoso o suficiente, o patógeno tem a capacidade de “pular” de humano para humano, como outras cepas de gripe.

O problema com as crises criadas por seres humanos irresponsáveis, como esse vírus híbrido feito em laboratório, é que os cientistas não tem criado a cura para a infecção que provoca um organismo em constante mudança, e só garante que as pessoas terão que usar vacinas e outros medicamentos pelo resto de suas vidas sem ter segurança de estar protegidos. Mesmo a impossibilidade científica de medir se um vírus como o H5N1 tem o potencial para se tornar em uma praga fora de controle ou não, foi suficiente para deter um grupo de cientistas bem financiados antes que eles criaram uma monstruosidade como esta. “Nosso estudo mostra que poucas mutações de aminoácidos são suficientes para fazer um vírus com uma H5 hemaglutinina aviária adquirir a capacidade de se espalhar em mamíferos”, disse Kawaoka.

O estudo de Kawaoka foi publicado na revista Nature. O seu é um dos dois documentos em torno do qual os cientistas, e funcionários do governo e especialistas em biossegurança discutiram antes que os resultados foram finalmente publicados. A maior parte da oposição veio dos EUA e seu Conselho Consultivo Nacional para as Ciências e a Biossegurança, uma organização que protestou contra a publicação por motivos de segurança nacional. Aqueles a favor da publicação dos resultados contrastaram as preocupações de saúde pública com uma declaração dizendo que era essencial compartilhar informações a fim de harmonizar a análise e resposta às epidemias ou pandemias de gripe. Todos os demais, deram um palpite de que os interessados em trocar informações estão mais interessados em manter o fluxo de dinheiro para poder financiar suas pesquisas. Mas os cientistas disseram que era necessário para monitorar o vírus H5N1 e as mudanças naturais e o que elas significavam para a comunidade científica e do público.

Kawaoka ganhou a admiração dos colegas no estilo de uma estrela de rock, uma situação perigosa se analisamos o que o financiamento ilimitado e o gênio fazem quando estão fora de controle. Em 2003, a China culpou diretamente os EUA pela morte de cidadãos chineses que foram infectados com uma estirpe de SARS violenta. Naquela época, a China lançou a idéia de que o vírus da SARS foi o produto de um experimento de laboratório que criou uma arma biológica, um vírus que foi criado para atingir uma raça específica. Outros relatos da mídia tradicional ainda aventuraran-se a especular sobre o vírus H5N1 que Kawaoka e seus colegas produziram em seus laboratórios. Outro cientista, Ron Fouchier, que também publicou os resultados de suas experiências após o governo holandês permiti-lo, anunciou a sua realização na semana passada. Sua experiência será publicada na revista Science em uma data ainda a ser determinado. Como em muitos casos, o governo dos EUA foi o financiador mais importante de experiências realizadas por Kawaoka.

As consequências da criação artificial ou mutação de um vírus são bem conhecidas pela comunidade científica. A pandemia de gripe H1N1 de 2009 foi o resultado de jogos científicos que criaram um vírus híbrido, com um gene hemaglutinina mutante do vírus H5N1 fundidos com os restantes sete genes do vírus H1N1. Naquela época, os cientistas não haviam criado uma cura para a pandemia e a indústria farmacêutica beneficiou-se enormemente, oferecendo uma vacina inútil e perigosa que ainda não tinha sido devidamente testada, e estava relacionada com centenas de efeitos colaterais e reações alérgicas não reveladas pelos fabricantes. Apesar das incógnitas, funcionários públicos e empresas farmacêuticas garantiram a segurança da vacina e justificaram a ausência de ensaios válidos em humanos pelo aparecimento inesperado do vírus H1N1. Os fabricantes de vacinas aumentaram sua renda média de 50 bilhões de dólares por ano como resultado direto da venda de vacinas, que foram compradas pelos governos com dinheiro do contribuinte. Em 2009, os povos do mundo foram mais uma vez sujeitos de experimento realizado sob o pretexto de que era necessário saber qual seria a dose correta para os seres humanos. É importante lembrar que os fabricantes de vacinas são imunes a ação legal se uma pessoa ferida por uma vacina decide processar por danos a sua saúde.

“É realmente um estudo maravilhoso”, disse Richard Webby, diretor de um centro de colaboração da Organização Mundial da Saúde que se concentra nos estudos de vírus da gripe em animais e pássaros no Hospital St. Jude Children em Memphis, Tennessee. A Organização Mundial da Saúde foi uma das muitas entidades que desfilaram ao redor do mundo implorando para que as pessoas usaram a vacina H1N1 para evitar a temida pandemia. Em meados de 2009, os EUA concordou em gastar pelo menos 1 bilhão de dólares na produção de uma vacina contra a gripe, o que me faz perguntar quanto desse dinheiro foi para financiar experiências como as conduzidas pelo Kawaoka e sua equipe.

Embora não mostrou nenhuma prova da sua opinião, Webby disse que as mutações como as que transformaram o vírus H5N1 em uma arma biológica não podem ocorrer na natureza. Claro, ninguém está esperando que o vírus atinja o nível de pandemia virulenta sozinho, sendo que pode ser criado em laboratório por cientistas. Ele disse que o vírus, tal como produzido no laboratório por Kawaoka exige alterações nas funções conhecidas por ser chave para que o vírus da influenza aviária de o salto e seja capaz de infectar os seres humanos. “Estes incluem mudar o tipo de receptores de células que se ligam ao vírus, os receptores que são tipicamente encontrados em pessoas, mas apenas nas profundezas dos seus pulmões, os que são diferentes aos encontrados no trato respiratório superior, onde o vírus da gripe humana se adjunta. ”

Outros cientistas como o Webby vem a pesquisa como uma valiosa peça de trabalho que irá ajudar especialistas no estudo do mecanismo de mutação do vírus, que é mais eficaz quando se estende de mamífero-a-mamífero. Um desses cientistas é Adolfo Garcia-Sastre, virologista especialista em gripe e que trabalha no Mount Sinai Hospital, em Nova York. Apesar de um aviso de cientistas sobre a possibilidade de uma infecção em massa, Garcia-Sastre diz que o vírus não pode tão facilmente ser transmitido entre humanos. Ele acredita que o trabalho ajuda os cientistas selecionar vírus com mutações dos que não têm para estudar e encontrar soluções para uma ameaça de pandemia. Isto é, no entanto, se os cientistas que estudam o vírus tem a intenção de realmente ajudar os seres humanos para evitar a pandemia. O problema com a sua premissa é que o sistema existente para monitorar o comportamento de vírus e outros patógenos é bastante pobre. Essa deficiência no monitoramento cresce exponencialmente quando se considera que as alterações feitas em um laboratório podem passar despercebidas por muito tempo, talvez até o momento em que o vírus é liberados no ar. Em um ambiente de laboratório, onde o dinheiro e o tempo são ilimitados, os cientistas podem resolver as questões pendentes e alcançar qualquer resultado desejado, como fez Kawaoka. Por exemplo, os genes que estão ausentes podem ser adicionados ou removidos para alterar a virulência e tipo de ser vivo no qual o vírus seria mais mortal.

Se algo de positivo saiu desta descoberta científica é o fato de que os cientistas que estudam os vírus da gripe e outros que gostam de brincar de Deus com formas de vida perigosas, tais como vírus e bactérias, estarão diretamente sob o microscópio enquanto criam novas formas de patógenos para pesquisa ou armas biológicas. Richard Webby, acredita que o resultado vai acabar em monitoramento para o tipo de pesquisa feita por cientistas de todo o mundo. “Claro que vai ser mais papelada. Mas no longo prazo certamente será muito mais fácil do que tem até dezembro do ano passado.” Claro, mas que poderia deter um cientista, ou qualquer outro profissional, de mentir sobre os resultados experimentais com a intenção de tornar seu sonho de ser reconhecido ou para obter mais fundos para seu projeto? Basta olhar para a ciência do clima (Climategate, o falso gráfico hockey stick, a elevação do nível do mar), a fim de encontrar uma resposta para esta pergunta. Ou talvez se nós não vamos tão longe, o que pode impedir que uma empresa farmacêutica ou entidade controlada pelo governo realize experimentos a céu aberto? Lembra do  experimento de Tuskegee?

Eu acho que tudo se resume em Confiança. Confiamos nós nossos cientistas sedentos por fama ou empresas farmacêuticas que os contratam, ou governos que experimentaram em seres humanos sem seu consentimento? … e que continuam a fazê-lo hoje?

Three Mutations Away from a Flu Pandemic

By LUIS MIRANDA | THE REAL AGENDA | MAY 9, 2012

The way to hell is paved with good intentions. This is the least that can be said about the creation of the most virulent form of H5N1 flu virus in two labs in the US and Holland. It is one of those cases where the medicine is worse than the disease. After lots of celebrations and pats on the backs, scientists revealed that their experiments to mutate the H5N1 flu virus had been successful, and the results had been replicated by different groups in Europe and the United States. What they didn’t seem to realize was that the results of those experiments, just as it happens with any other relevant scientific research, would have to be published to the medical community and then the public. Their satisfaction with the results of the experiments, or perhaps their incompetence, blinded them until some sense came back to them. Then came the censorship.

Initially, the procedures used to produce the mutated bird flu virus were blocked from the public as warnings were issued about the potential that so-called terrorists got a hold of the experiments and produced weaponized flu to spread it around cities with dense populations. Amazingly, that is exactly what the scientists did. They created a bioweapon in a lab, confirmed the results by replicating them in different labs, provided the findings to insiders in the scientific community and government officials, and now, they published the results out so anyone can take them, replicate them and create a pandemic.

The head scientist and virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka, who works at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Tokyo, confirmed that it only took three changes made to the main gene of the virus to enhance it with the capacity to ‘jump’ from animal mammals to humans. Kawaoka and his team confirmed that after implementing the changes on the gene, the virus was easily and effectively transmissible among mammals. The final result of the research was a hybrid virus that would contaminate populations as fast as the air can carry it all over the planet. It doesn’t get anything easier than that, does it? After obtaining the new virus, the researchers injected it in ferrets where mutations in the gene called hemagglutinin — the H part of the H5N1 name — did the rest.

According to research, one of the mutations observed in the hybrid virus is similar to another found in the virus that affects areas of the world such as the Middle East, Asia, Europe and Africa, where it has killed at least 345 patients without even being weaponized. The 345 number accounts for cases reported as deaths caused by the virus or complications, although many other cases have been left out or simply not reported. Scientist allege that the work performed on the H5N1 virus was necessary in order to learn about it and how it could potentially evolve during a pandemic. They believe that after the first mutation seen in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, the virus will continue to change and that their experiments and results may help save many lives because there will be time to produce a vaccine to fight it. Does anyone see economic intere$t written all over it? This is the big $; I mean S in Health that few people realize the experiment is all about. As if the danger of a weaponized virus transmissible from other mammals to humans wasn’t dangerous enough, the pathogen also has the capacity to ‘jump’ from human to human, just as other flu strains.

The issue with human-made crisis such as the hybrid, lab-made H5N1 virus is that scientists have not figured out a cure to the infection it would cause, only a treatment for an ever changing organism, which only ensures that people will have to use vaccines and other medications for the rest of their lives and still be behind in the game. Not even the scientific inability to measure whether a virus like the H5N1 has the potential or not to become and out of control human transmissible virus was enough to stop well-financed scientists from creating quite a monstrosity. “Our study shows that relatively few amino acid mutations are sufficient for a virus with an avian H5 hemagglutinin to acquire the ability to transmit in mammals,” Kawaoka said.

Yushihiro Kawaoka’s paper, was published in the journal Nature. His is one of two papers around which scientists, government officials and biosecurity experts were debating about before the results were finally put out. Most of the opposition came from the  U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, an organization that protested the publication on national security grounds. Those in favor of publishing the results contrasted the public health concerns with a statement that said it was critical to share information in order to harmonize the analysis and response to flu epidemics or pandemics. Everyone else’s hunch is that the people concerned with sharing information are more interested in keeping the money flow going that allows them to finance their research. But scientists said that it was necessary to keep an eye on H5N1 natural changes and what they meant to the scientific community and the public.

Kawaoka’s research has earned him the rock star treatment from colleagues, a dangerous state of affairs if one thinks what can unlimited financing and genius do when they are off the leash. Back in 2003, China directly blamed the U.S. for the death of Chinese people who died after being infected with a violent strain of SARS. Back then, China floated the idea that the SARS virus was the product of a lab experiment that resulted in a bioweapon, a virus that was race specific. Other reports from main stream media even adventured expectations about the H5N1 airborne virus that Kawaoka and his colleagues produced in their labs. Another scientist, Ron Fouchier, who will also published the results of his experiments after the Dutch government allowed him to do so, announced his achievement just last week. His experiment will be published on the scientific magazine Science at a time that is still to be determined. As in many occasions, the US government was the top financier of the experiments conducted by Kawaoka.

The consequences of the artificial creation or mutation of viruses is well-known by the scientific community. The 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic was a result from the games played by scientists who created a hybrid virus with a mutated hemagglutinin gene from H5N1 that fused to the seven remaining genes from the H1N1 virus. Back then, scientists did not create a cure to the potential pandemic and the pharmaceutical industry heavily benefited by offering a useless and dangerous vaccine that hadn’t even been tested properly and which was linked to hundreds of side effects and allergic reactions not disclosed by the makers. Despite the unknowns, both government officials all over the world and pharmaceutical companies themselves guaranteed the safety of the vaccine and justified the absence of valid human trials on the unexpected appearance of the H1N1 virus. Vaccine makers multiplied their average earnings of $50 billion dollars a year as a direct result of the sale of the vaccines, which were purchased by governments with taxpayer money. In 2009, the people of the world were once again the subjects of a worldwide experiment performed under the pretense that it was necessary to learn how much would the correct dosage be for humans. It is important to remember that vaccine makers are immune against legal action should a person determined to have been damaged by a vaccine decide to sue for damages.

“It really is a wonderful study,” said Richard Webby, director of a World Health Organization collaborating center that focuses on studies of animal and bird influenza viruses at St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. The World Health Organization itself was one of many entities that paraded around the world pushing people to buy and inject themselves with the H1N1 vaccine to prevent the much feared pandemic. In mid 2009, the U.S. agreed to spend at least $1 billion in flu vaccine production, which makes one wonder how much of that money went to finance experiments such as the one conducted by Kawaoka and his team.

Although he did not show proof of it, Webby said that mutations like the ones that transformed the H5N1 virus into a biological weapon may not occur in the wild. Of course, no one is counting on the virus to reach the virulent pandemic level by itself, now that it has been aided by out of control scientists. He said that viruses such as the one produced in a lab by Kawaoka require changes in functions the field has known for some time are key for avian flu viruses to make the leap to be able to infect humans. “Those include changing the type of cell receptors the viruses bind to, from receptors that are typically found in people only deep in the lungs to ones found in the upper respiratory tract, where human flu viruses attach.”

Other scientists like Webby see the research as a valuable piece of work that will help experts study the mutation mechanism of the virus, which they say, turns it more efficient when spreading from mammal-to-mammal. One of those scientists is Adolfo Garcia-Sastre, a flu virologist who works at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Although a warning for the potential mass infection has been issued by the scientists themselves, Garcia-Sastre says that the virus may not transmit that easily among humans. He believes that Kawaoka’s work will help scientists pick out viruses that present mutations from those that do not have them in order to study them and come up with solutions to a pandemic threat. This is, though, if the scientists studying them intend to actually help humans avoid such pandemic. The problem with his premise is that the system in place utilized to monitor the behaviours of viruses and other pathogens is rather poor. This deficiency in the monitoring grows exponentially if one takes into account that changes made to viruses in labs can go undetected for a long time, perhaps up until the moment it is released into the air. In a lab environment, where money and time are unlimited, scientists can deal with unsolved problems, tie all the loose ends and achieve any desired result just as Kawaoka did. For example, missing genes can be added or taken out to affect the virulence and the type of living thing it would be most effective on.

If anything positive has come out of this scientific development is the fact that flu scientists and others who seek to play God with dangerous forms of life like viruses and bacteria will be directly under the microscope as they come up with new ways to teach themselves how to create bioweapons for research purposes and for biowarfare. Richard Webby, from the WHO believes that the outcome will end in more monitoring for the kind of research completed by scientists all over the world. “There’s certainly going to be more paperwork. But in the long run it’s surely going to be a whole lot easier than what we’ve just been through since December of last year.” Sure, but what stops a scientist, or for that matter any other professional, from lying about experimental results to carry out his or her dream to be recognized or to obtain more funding for their signature life project? One only needs to look at climate science (Climategate, hockey stick, rising sea level) in order to find an answer to this question. Or perhaps if you don’t want to go that far, what stops a pharmaceutical company or government controlled entity from carrying out experiments out in the open? Remember Tuskegee?

I guess it all comes down to trust. Do we trust our fame-thirsty scientists or the pharmaceutical companies that hire them or the governments that experimented on humans without their consent?… and continue to do it today?

China Awakens to Mass Vaccination Fraud

AP

China’s plans to vaccinate 100 million children and come a step closer to eradicating measles has set off a popular outcry that highlights widening public distrust of the authoritarian government after repeated health scandals.

Since the Health Ministry announced the World Health Organization-backed measles vaccination plan last week, authorities have been flooded with queries and Internet bulletin boards have been plastered with worried messages. Conspiracy theories saying the vaccines are dangerous have spread by cell phone text messages.

The public skepticism has even been covered by state-run media, which noted the lack of trust was about more than vaccines.

“Behind the public’s panic over the rumors is an expression of the citizens’ demands for security and a crisis in confidence,” a columnist wrote in the Chongqing Daily newspaper.

“The lack of trust toward our food and health products was not formed in one day,” said the Global Times newspaper. “Repairing the damage and building credibility will take a very long time. The public health departments need to take immediate action on all fronts.”

In recent years, government agencies have dragged their feet or withheld information about the spread of SARS, bird flu and, last month, an outbreak of cholera. China’s slow response to SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, was widely blamed for causing the outbreak that swept the globe in 2003, and led to deep mistrust both internally and internationally.

Milk products contaminated with industrial chemicals are still found despite mass recalls and several criminal convictions, including executions, after tainted infant formula sickened 300,000 babies and killed at least six two years ago.

Feeding into worries about the measles vaccine were media reports in March that vaccines for encephalitis, hepatitis B and other diseases possibly killed four children and seriously sickened dozens in one province. The health ministry said an investigation showed those vaccines were improperly stored but subsequent illnesses were unrelated. Many remain unconvinced.

Meanwhile, two Chinese vaccine makers recently said they shut operations after rabies vaccines they produced were found to be substandard.

The ministry has tried to calm the public’s anxieties about the 10-day measles immunization drive, which started Saturday. It has busily issued statements, refuted rumors and held briefings to emphasize the need for the vaccine as well as its safety.

The campaign, likely the world’s largest, targets all children ages 8 months to 4 or 14 years, depending on locality, and is intended to include remote areas, migrant communities and other places where previous vaccination coverage has been spotty.

Yet the publicity is not likely to easily reassure a public increasingly skeptical of reassurances from a government often seen as opaque and unaccountable, especially where public health is involved.

“This time how could the public have no doubts? They are asking: ‘Is there an outbreak of the disease? Are previous vaccinations not working? Are the people in the government trying to make money from this?'” newspaper commentator Wei Yingjie said in an interview.

The public push-back marks a turnaround from the mass campaigns in the communist heyday under Mao Zedong and shows how prosperity and greater access to information are creating a more assertive populace.

“This campaign would have been no problem in the Mao era, but today we know with globalization, the Internet, the information explosion, this increasingly assertive civil society, they want to participate in the public policy process,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Measles is a highly contagious viral disease that can develop into blindness, pneumonia and encephalitis and lead to death, and health experts say China needs an effective vaccination program.

Despite previous vaccination drives, China recorded 52,000 measles cases last year, including 39 deaths. The infection rates mean China is far from meeting its national pledge from 2005 to eradicate measles by 2012.

Mass drives in other parts of the world have either virtually eliminated measles or significantly reduced the number of infections. The disease has been nearly nonexistent in the Americas since 2002 and cases in seven countries in southern Africa fell from 60,000 in 1996 to 117 by 2000, according to the WHO. Dr. Lisa Cairns, head of immunization at WHO China, said many of those infected with measles in China are young children who were likely never vaccinated. “Because the disease is not as common as it used to be, it is easy to forget how serious it is,” she noted. China’s Health Ministry has repeatedly said that the measles vaccine is safe, with random samples tested from stores around the country, and has tried to assure the public that medical personnel are prepared for emergencies, including any adverse reactions. On Friday, a senior ministry official promised that no one would be forced to take the vaccination. “Vaccination will only proceed after parents sign an agreement,” the ministry’s deputy director for disease control Hao Yang said. “We heard that some places were linking vaccination with admission to kindergartens and schools. So yesterday we issued a notice that admission to school should never be used to force children to vaccination.” Health care professionals, however, have questioned the immunization drive’s broad scope, given that many children have previously been inoculated and thus would be vaccinated again. A blog posting by a prominent immunization expert, Wang Yuedan of Peking University, urged the government to focus on formerly underserved groups like the children of rural migrants now living in urban areas, instead of vaccinating some children again. By Friday, Wang withdrew his reservations and backed the campaign, saying he was convinced by the Health Ministry’s explanations. Still, Wang said in an interview that he winced at the thought of his 4-year-old daughter suffering a possible fever from the vaccine. “I’m a man and a father first, who has emotions and who can’t watch his child suffer pain blindly,” he said. ___ Associated Press researcher Xi Yue contributed to this report.