Wednesday, July 15, 2009

H1N1 Flu Vaccinations Could Begin in October

Since the H1N1 flu emerged in March in Mexico and Southern California, the virus has infected an estimated 1 million Americans, killing 170, and is still spreading, despite the summer’s heat and humidity, which influenza usually cannot tolerate. This persistence makes the virus’ resurgence in the fall all but certain and leaves little time to prepare. “We have a little bit more than a month ... to get our acts together,” Dr. Anne Schuchat of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said during a summit at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland on Thursday, where officials announced their game plan to deal with the threat, including the vaccination schedule and the target populations. About 500 state and local health officials were in attendance, as was President Barack Obama, who took time from his G-8 summit in Italy to join by teleconference.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said if all goes well, H1N1 vaccinations could begin by mid-October, and while officials have not yet decided exactly which age groups will be recommended to get the vaccine, school-age children, young adults with risky conditions such as asthma, pregnant women, and health workers are likely to be among the first in line. But the timetable is largely dependent on the outcome of studies with experimental vaccine batches that are set to begin the first week of August. Sebelius said that as soon as the vaccines were approved and available, the federal government would purchase them from the manufacturers and share them free among the states, which must then “try and get this in the arms of the targeted population as soon as possible.”

Sebelius acknowledged that this fall is likely to be a confusing season, with doctors’ offices, clinics, grocery stores and drug stores dispensing doses of regular seasonal flu vaccine as well as the H1N1 vaccine, which will probably have to be given in two separate inoculations. Schools and day care centers may also be utilized to mount a mass vaccination program against the H1N1 virus. “Since the population that seems to be most affected is younger folks, school-aged kids, kids in day care centers, we may well partner with the schools, looking at those as possible sites for a vaccination program,” said Sebelius.

Sebelius urged the summit attendees to go home and get schools, mayors and other community leaders to spread that message. “The last thing we want is millions of parents to be surprised” when the get-your-child-vaccinated-at-school note comes home. She also warned against complacency. “What we can’t do is wait until October and then suddenly decide that we have a very serious situation on our hands,” she said.

Sebelius said the federal government will provide $350 million by the end of July to help states develop specific plans for combating the pandemic and to help hospitals brace for a surge of demand. “We want to make sure we are not promoting panic but we are promoting vigilance and preparation,” Obama told the gathering. “We may end up averting a crisis. That’s our hope.”

Many other issues have yet to be hammered out, such as guidelines for closing schools where infected students are found, and how to keep students learning if schools are closed for extended periods. And an even bigger problem: When schools close and working parents must stay home, or when workers get sick and don’t get paid for time off. Usually, they go to work despite their illness, spreading infection to co-workers. “How are we going to assist people who don’t have benefits?” asked Paul Jarris of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said she is currently working with the Labor Department to address that question, and she urged employers to make other provisions, such as telecommuting, should H1N1invade their workplaces this fall.

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