It’s unknown whether the swine flu virus will mutate to a more deadly strain in the coming year, but the federal government is preparing for the worst in case the pandemic continues to spread. At yesterday’s flu summit at the National Institutes of Health, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius revealed the government’s provisions for a possible swine flu emergency.
The campaign to combat the swine flu is different from the strategy usually employed against the seasonal flu. One reason is that the swine flu appears to be most deadly to children and young adults, while the seasonal flu traditionally is most fatal to the elderly. Therefore, if mass vaccination becomes necessary, school-aged children will be among the first to be immunized; this likely will occur at school, in a manner reminiscent of the 1950s polio vaccination campaign. “We are likely to have a different target population,” Sebelius said. “We will be seeking partnerships with schools potentially and other vaccination sites.” Time will have to be spent writing consent forms so parents are not blindsided when schools ask to vaccinate their children, Sebelius said [Reuters]. States should also prepare a plan for closing schools if needed.
Producing enough vaccine to prepare for a possible emergency will be no simple feat. The federal government should get about 100 million doses of vaccine by mid-October, if the current production by five companies goes as planned. But enough vaccine for wide use by the 120 million people especially vulnerable to the newly emerged strain of H1N1 influenza virus will not be available until later in the fall [Washington Post]. Besides children, those for whom the government considers swine flu vaccination especially urgent are adults with chronic diseases, health-care workers and pregnant women.
In total, U.S. government officials and manufacturers are preparing to produce as many as 600 million doses of vaccine against the new H1N1 virus, an effort that would dwarf seasonal-flu campaigns [The Wall Street Journal]. The federal government is also setting aside $350 million to help state and local health care systems accommodate the possible increase in immunizations and hospital admissions. That’s on top of the $8 billion already invested thus far on the vaccine and other tools to combat the pandemic.
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