Despite H1N1 fears, many worry about vaccination

By Rob Stein and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 22, 2009

Americans have become increasingly alarmed about the swine flu, but many are wary about getting vaccinated against the disease, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

As the H1N1 virus continues to spread nationwide, a majority of those surveyed -- 52 percent -- now say they are "a great deal" or "somewhat" worried that they or someone in their household will be infected with it, up from 39 percent of those polled in August. Concern is rising fastest among young adults, one of the groups most vulnerable to the virus. In August, just 26 percent of those ages 18 to 29 said they were concerned; now 47 percent are worried.

At the same time, however, many Americans are hesitant about being vaccinated or having their children inoculated. More than six in 10 say they will not get vaccinated, and only 52 percent of parents say they plan to have their children vaccinated, even though parents tend to be more worried about the flu.

The findings illustrate the dueling challenges the federal government faces in its unprecedented effort to protect Americans against the first influenza pandemic in more than four decades. Federal officials have spent at least $2 billion to buy enough vaccine to inoculate at least half the population and pledged to provide the immunization to everyone who wants it.

But vaccine production has lagged behind projections, leaving public health officials scrambling to allocate the limited doses available and frustrating some anxious parents and other people waiting to be immunized. At the same time, there is still a long way to go in federal efforts to convince people of the necessity and safety of the vaccine.

Two-thirds of those polled say they are confident that the vaccine is safe, but only 22 percent say they are "very" confident it is. And among the three in 10 who say they are not confident, only 6 percent plan to be vaccinated. Even among those who are convinced the vaccine is safe, just 46 percent plan to get inoculated. That number rises, but only to 56 percent, among those worried about catching the virus who think the vaccine is safe.

Among those who are encouraged to be immunized, adults younger than 30 are less apt to consider the vaccine safe, while parents' views are on par with those of the public as a whole. Sixty-five percent of parents say they think the vaccine is safe, and 19 percent are very confident about its safety.

Just over six in 10 young adults (63 percent) express confidence in its safety, compared with nearly eight in 10 seniors (78 percent), and only 13 percent of those younger than 30 say they have "a great deal" of confidence. Further, only about three in 10 younger adults say they plan to be inoculated despite the elevated risk they face, compared with four in 10 seniors.

During a congressional hearing Wednesday, several senators questioned federal officials about the vaccination campaign and other issues, including shortages of antiviral drugs for children and whether hospitals are prepared to care for large numbers of sick patients. Most of those surveyed express confidence in the ability of federal and local governments to respond to an outbreak, though few feel deeply sure of it.

"I'm worried that the virus is getting ahead of the public health system's capacity to respond to it," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano assured the senators that everything is being done as quickly as possible to produce and distribute antiviral drugs and vaccine.

"There will be enough vaccine for every American who wants to be vaccinated," Sebelius said, repeating reassurances that the vaccine is safe.

She also said that approval of emergency intravenous use of new antiviral drugs in patients critically ill with swine flu could come within days.

"It is imminent," Sebelius said. "We hope that's the case."

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company