China said Tuesday the country was facing a "grim" situation in its efforts to stave off fresh outbreaks of swine flu, as monitors in France said the number of cases there was much higher than claimed.
The pessimistic news came as the northern hemisphere prepares for the onset of autumn and winter, which experts believe will result in an expected second wave of the global A(H1N1) influenza pandemic.
China, the world's most populous country, is scheduled to launch its nationwide vaccination programme "this week", Health Minister Chen Zhu told reporters, but he admitted Beijing was facing an uphill battle.
"China will be facing a grim situation in the prevention and control of the A(H1N1) flu," Chen said, adding that supply of vaccines would "fall far short of demand if compared to the demand of 1.3 billion people".
China, which last week approved a homegrown one-dose vaccine, said it would become the first nation to launch a mass programme to inoculate the population against the A(H1N1) virus, now the world's most prevalent flu strain.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said Friday that at least 2,837 people had died from A(H1N1) flu globally. The virus, which originated in the Americas, has already been detected in nearly every country in the world.
China has so far reported 5,592 cases of A(H1N1) flu but no deaths.
One patient in Shanghai and another in the neighbouring eastern province of Zhejiang were in serious condition after contracting the virus, Chen said.
The minister said there had been a sudden surge in the total number of cases, as well as a quick jump in cluster outbreaks, with the start of the new academic year bringing students together in close proximity.
China plans to vaccinate 65 million people, or five percent of the total population of 1.3 billion, before year's end.
Chen said soldiers, police, children aged five to 19, those with chronic respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, medical workers, quarantine officials and people working in the railway and aviation sectors would be given priority.
In France, a flu monitoring agency which looks at cases region-by-region also said the number of cases was skyrocketing -- far beyond the official figures released -- with as many as 20,000 new cases nationwide every week.
"We are convinced that our figures are close to reality, with a margin of error of 20 percent," GROG director Jean-Marie Cohen told reporters during a conference in Switzerland on the antiviral drug Tamiflu.
GROG based its figures on a network of 5,000 doctors and pediatricians encountering acute respiratory infections in patients at the regional level, with an extrapolation made to come up with a total for the entire country.
Cohen said he believed the health ministry's figures were calculated "in a rush".
In Latin America, the head of security for Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa had died of the virus, officials said Monday. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel John Merino was first hospitalised on August 10.
Two leaders in the region have so far fallen ill from swine flu: presidents Oscar Arias of Costa Rica and Alvaro Uribe of Colombia.