Swine flu vaccines have arrived! Or more accurately, limited amounts of the first available vaccine, a nasal spray, have been delivered to distribution points around the country, and several states began vaccinating health care workers and young children on Monday. It’s not a moment too soon: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have announced that flu is now widespread in most of the United States. The infections are “overwhelmingly” pandemic H1N1 influenza, commonly known as swine flu. The flu season generally lasts well into May, so many months of uncertainties lie ahead [Los Angeles Times].
CDC director Thomas Frieden says that so far, vaccine “demand is outstripping supply, but we expect that fairly soon supply will be outstripping demand.” … Over the next two to three weeks, tens of millions of additional doses will become available [Los Angeles Times]. The injectable form of the vaccine will be ready for distribution next week.
Now that the vaccines have been successfully hustled off the assembly lines, the next daunting challenge for public health officials is convincing people to go get vaccinated. Myths and worries about the vaccine have spread on talk radio and anti-vaccine Web sites [The New York Times], with even celebrities like Bill Maher unhelpfully chiming in via Twitter. At a Tuesday press conference, Frieden strongly refuted one of the most commonly voiced concerns: that in rushing the vaccine through production, it wasn’t properly tested for safety.
As Frieden and many others have taken pains to explain, the swine flu vaccine was made and tested in exactly the same way that flu vaccines are always made and tested. Had this strain of flu emerged just a few months earlier, there would not have been any need for two vaccines this year; 2009 H1N1 would simply have been included as one of the components in the annual vaccine [The New Yorker]. Frieden also noted that clinical trials of the new vaccine haven’t shown any serious side effects, and added that he and his children will all get vaccinated.
Frieden also rebutted the common perception that the swine flu virus, technically known as the 2009 H1N1 virus, causes only mild illness. Like seasonal flu, swine flu can give infected people a couple of days of bed-ridden misery, he said, and in some cases can lead to hospitalization and even death–just like seasonal flu. In a typical U.S. flu season, about 35,000 people die from complications.
Scientists will also be watching the virus for changes, as flu viruses frequently mutate to form new strains. H1N1 has been remarkably stable since it began infecting people widely in March and April this year. But experts predict once it has infected a certain proportion of the population — no one knows exactly what proportion — it will start to change…. If the virus “drifts,” the vaccine will have to be reformulated to match, just as with the seasonal flu vaccine. The process takes about six months [Reuters].
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