Japan is to vaccinate thousands of medical workers and officials against bird flu to prepare for a possible pandemic, a health ministry official said Wednesday.
The ministry will vaccinate about 6,400 people by next March and plans eventually to expand the programme to about 10 million people including police and military officers, the official said on condition of anonymity.
"I believe it would be the world's first plan to vaccinate thousands of people" for a possible outbreak of a new type of flu, he said.
Japan has stockpiles of so-called pre-pandemic vaccines for 20 million people.
The official said the government will study the effectiveness and side effects of the vaccines, which are expected to be given to volunteers.
"Once the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines are known, the government will consider expanding it to a scale of some 10 million people," he said.
The H5N1 strain has killed more than 230 people worldwide since late 2003.
Experts fear the virus, which is usually spread directly from birds to humans, could mutate into a form easily transmissible between people, sparking a deadly global pandemic.
Health minister Yoichi Masuzoe on Tuesday proposed using part of the government's stockpiled vaccines on workers at hospitals or quarantine, customs and immigration offices.
The plan was backed Wednesday by a government-appointed panel of experts.
"If we obtain good results over its effectiveness and safety, we want to consider vaccinating (an additional) 10 million people who are in medical occupations" or other key jobs such as at utilities, Masuzoe said.
The ministry panel also approved plans to increase the vaccine stockpile and to try to shorten to six months the period needed to produce an effective vaccine if a pandemic occurs. It currently takes 18 months.
Japan saw several outbreaks of the deadly H5N1 strain in early 2007, leading authorities to kill tens of thousands of chickens as a precaution, but it has reported no human deaths.