CDC's Anne Schuchat Discusses H1N1 Vaccine

By Liza Mundy
Friday, November 6, 2009

On a Wednesday toward the end of October -- the time period when government officials had once predicted there would be 160 million doses of swine flu vaccine ready for shipping -- Anne Schuchat paid a visit to the Department of Education. Schuchat, a career government medical officer, was there for a screening of "Sid the Science Kid," in which the PBS character talks about vaccines and why it's a good idea to get them. The episode is called "Getting a Shot: You Can Do It!"

Schuchat, who enjoys talking to children -- they ask things like whether you can give flu to your dog -- also chatted with an audience of kids, to underscore the pro-vaccine message.

Problem was, at that point many of the kids likely couldn't get the shot, because production of the vaccine was behind schedule. Far from 160 million, the government had a fraction of that number of doses. This, too, was, Schuchat's problem: Her other meetings that day consisted of explaining to reporters and members of Congress why the vaccine was not, yet, available to most Americans.

"I'm disappointed that we're not in better shape," Schuchat says now, two weeks later. At this point -- with shortages likely to persist into December -- she knows people are begging their doctors and health departments.

"The way I'm looking at this: This is a marathon," Schuchat says.

Until now, Schuchat, a D.C. native who is the chief health officer for H1N1 response with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has worked on public health issues largely behind the scenes. Now, in briefings, webcasts and outreach sessions, she is one of the most prominent faces of the response to swine flu.

"It's a thankless situation, because there's always going to be a screw-up when it comes to a mass immunization campaign," says Arthur Allen, a journalist who is the author of "Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Lifesaver," a history of vaccine development.

"Historically, there's no mass immunization campaign that isn't screwed up," he says. "There's too many things that can go wrong. You're damned if you do, and damned if you don't."

Schuchat, you might say, is among the damned. It is her job to encourage acceptance of the vaccine while tamping down anger about its tardy arrival; to raise awareness without freaking people out; to convey what researchers are learning about this flu and its eccentricities; and manage a whirl of skepticism, dudgeon, confusion, fear, paranoia and very legitimate questions.

"This virus is circulating much later than the annual flu viruses," she pointed out in May, when swine flu had emerged and lingered. She and others noted that it seemed to be striking young people more than the typical seasonal flu, which tends to be very hard on the elderly.

And, to predictions that the vaccine may arrive in large quantities just as the virus is abating, she offered this caution: 1957. Back then, she said, flu seemed to peak in the fall, "and people thought, you know, we don't need to bother to vaccinate." Then "there was a big, big wave after the first of the year."

For a mild-mannered public servant, it's a trial by fire. The odd thing, says her brother Charlie, is that "she seems to thrive on it."

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