Influenza infections in China are expected to be less widespread this winter than last season, the nation's top disease control official said, as he reassured the public that panic is not warranted over vaccine shortages.
"Monitoring has shown that the number of flu cases nationwide in recent weeks has seen a great decrease from the same period last year," said Gao Fu, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Up to now, we have not found mutations of the flu virus. The outbreaks last year, the most serious in recent years, resulted in better immunization. We predict the number of outbreaks will be fewer than the previous winter."
Many parts of China have reported shortages in supplies of flu vaccines, but the authorities have responded with measures such as encouraging vaccine makers to increase production to meet demand, according to Gao.
"People should take precautionary measures, but there is no need to panic," he said. "We believe flu will not be a big problem this year and can be effectively controlled."
Last winter, when the country was hit by its worst flu epidemic in the past few years, respiratory departments at major hospitals in many cities found themselves short-handed.
In places with outbreaks of 10 or more cases, China reported a total of 132 people with the flu from Oct 22 to Nov 4, according to the Chinese National Influenza Center. In 2017, in areas with outbreaks, 1,057 flu cases were reported during the comparable weeks, from Oct 23 to Nov 5, the center said. Those numbers do not include individual cases in areas that have had no outbreak.
With the approach of winter, the peak flu season, the National Health Commission released a national plan for control and prevention of flu in October.
It urged people across China, especially medical workers, to receive a flu vaccination to prevent infection and the spread of the disease.
The supply of flu vaccines has decreased this year, with a major reason being suspension of production by a major vaccine producer in Jilin province, which was involved in a serious quality scandal, according to media reports.
Changchun Changsheng Bio-tech Co was ordered to halt production during an investigation after the nation's top drug authority found in July it committed serious violations including faking production records.
Most areas in Beijing's Xicheng district face shortages of flu vaccines this winter, China Daily found after calling the district's flu vaccination clinics.
A staff worker surnamed Tian from the Baizhifang community health center said they were out of the vaccines but may have stock next week.
A staff worker surnamed Chen from West Chang'an community in Xicheng district said that this winter, they will not have any flu vaccine.
An official at the district Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the Great Khingan Mountains area, Heilongjiang province, said that in the past, the center bought all its flu vaccines from Changchun Changsheng Bio-tech.
"After the company halted production, we received no supply," she added.
Meanwhile, Ma Ruiqi, a resident of Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang, said she is waiting anxiously for the influenza vaccine for her 1-year-old daughter.
"Almost every day there will be parents asking about the vaccines' arrival in the WeChat group of our community-level hospital," said the 30-year-old mother. "This morning, the doctor said the vaccines for children aged over 3 and for the adults have arrived, but the shortage of vaccines for children under 3 will continue until the end of the year."
Xin Wen and Wang Xiaoyu contributed to this story.