Cuba to vaccinate more than 1.1 million

HAVANA — Cuba will begin vaccinating nearly 10 percent of its citizens against swine flu this week, reversing its previous skepticism about the high cost and effectiveness of immunization to combat the virus, The Associated Press reported March 26.

Communist Party newspaper Granma said March 26 that the vaccinations will come in two waves, the first beginning April 1. More than 1.1 million Cubans deemed particularly vulnerable to swine flu will get them in a country of about 11.4 million.

The vaccinations come from stocks donated by the World Health Organization.

Granma said about 80,000 of those to receive the vaccine are pregnant women. The list also includes health and education workers; airport employees and others who come into contact with foreigners; and islanders 6 months and older who suffer from specific health problems that swine flu can exacerbate.

President Raul Castro said in late December that 41 Cubans had died of swine flu. Officials have released no additional statistics.

Most of those killed by the virus suffered from chronic ailments and came into contact with visitors from the U.S., Mexico or other countries hit especially hard by the flu outbreak, the government says.

Health officials said last summer that Cuba preferred to rely on the army sealing off areas where the virus was spreading and mass quarantines to fight swine flu — rather than using imported vaccines that would be expensive and potentially only minimally effective.

Authorities softened that stance dramatically, however, after WHO Secretary-General Margaret Chan said during a visit to Havana in October that the organization would distribute 200 million doses of swine flu vaccine to 100 developing countries, including Cuba.