updated 11/18/2009 9:06:43 PM ET 2009-11-19T02:06:43

China's health minister said Wednesday his country is vaccinating 1.5 million people a day against swine flu, part of a mammoth effort to reach nearly 7 percent of inhabitants of the world's most populous country by year's end.

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Chen Zhu told The Associated Press that more than 50 million Chinese have been immunized so far.

He also defended China's aggressive quarantine of foreigners with flulike symptoms as well as health detentions of its own citizens.

"With initial efforts of containment, actually we not only reduced the impact of the first wave to China, but we also won time for us to prepare the vaccine" now being given to China's people, Chen said in an interview during the Havana meeting of the Global Forum for Health Research.

After the swine flu first appeared in Mexico last spring, China put Mexican visitors — and people from other countries who had set foot in Mexico — in weeklong quarantines and monitored them for the virus, whether or not they seemed sick.

Chinese authorities also isolated entire planeloads of international visitors if someone on board experienced flulike symptoms. They pulled passengers off trains and blocked access to villages if someone got sick after coming into contact with a foreigner.

Such measures are easier to impose in an authoritarian state. They sparked protests around the world, but when asked if they were successful, Chen said: "Exactly, very successful, exactly."

"We are confident the situation is under control," he said.

Chen said officials have moved past containing swine flu and are focusing now on improving emergency room treatment to keep those with the most urgent cases of the virus from dying.

Goal of vaccinating 80 to 90 million
He said China developed its swine flu vaccine in late August and plans to give it to 1.5 million Chinese a day in November and December, in hopes that 80 million to 90 million will have been vaccinated by the end of 2009. That would be nearly 7 percent of the population — and officials hope to vaccinate an additional 3 percent in January and February.

"We know this is not enough for a population of 1.3 billion, but at least for the vulnerable people, for the students, people with underlying basic diseases and, in the future, for pregnant women, we have vaccines," Chen said.

He added that vaccinating medical personnel is also a top priority, to protect their patients.

Tom Skinner, spokesman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said that by comparison, the United States has allocated 49 million swine flu vaccine doses since late September.

He said American manufacturers are capable of producing well over 1 million vaccines a day — and China's factories and health officials could do better than that amid a major vaccination campaign.

"One and a half million, that's a lot of people," he said. "It goes to show you what can be done when you have resources and people mobilized as well as people coming forward to get vaccinated."

Skinner declined to comment on whether Chinese quarantine programs have been as successful as Chen and other top Chinese officials claim. As for the U.S., he said, "The CDC did not implement such measures because the virus was so widespread so early that such measures would likely not have an impact."

Chen said China has no plans to export its vaccine — at least for now.

"We are in a shortage of the vaccine in China. In the short term, no exports," he said. "We will see if next year there is a possibility to export a little bit, but to get the pandemic under control in China should be the most important contribution for its control worldwide."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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