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Swine flu follow-up

Thursday, December 24, 2009; A14

WHEN THE heads of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases came to see us last week, they had some good news. The second wave of the H1N1 virus (known to the rest of us as swine flu) had reached a plateau. It has remained relatively mild. And there are now enough doses of the vaccine for anyone who wants one. That last point is most important. The officials said the window of opportunity is open now to protect yourself against a possible third wave.

You'll recall that the first wave of swine flu hit in April in Mexico and the United States. It spread so quickly and so far that the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic in June. According to CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden, as of mid-November there were an estimated 47 million confirmed cases of H1N1 in the United States, 213,000 hospitalizations and nearly 10,000 deaths. That is fewer than the 36,000 who die annually from seasonal flu. What gives that number added significance is that 1,000 of the swine flu deaths were children. Dr. Frieden told us that's a five-fold increase over the number of children who succumb to seasonal flu.

One aspect of swine flu's second wave that continues to concern us was the federal government's inability to initially meet the vaccine production numbers it estimated. Dr. Margaret Hamburg of the FDA pointed out -- and we recognize -- that the Department of Health and Human Services moved quickly in the early days of the pandemic to get a vaccine produced in record time. But the continued dependence on egg-based vaccine production threw a wrench in the process. The H1N1 virus grew slower than anticipated, resulting in lower yields for vaccines and long lines of frustrated and worried people unable to get vaccinated. A new cell-based laboratory that came online in North Carolina last month will produce flu vaccines in about half the time of those from eggs. So that's a start.

By Monday there will be more than 100 million doses of the swine flu vaccine available. Dr. Anthony Fauci of the infectious diseases institute told us that the best way to avoid a third wave of infections is to get the vaccine shot or the nasal mist as soon as possible. Officials say all experience confirms that the vaccine is safe and effective. But there are still too many who eschew the shot. One popular assumption is that you could get the flu from the flu vaccine. When we asked if this were true, Drs. Fauci, Frieden and Hamburg practically shouted in unison: "No!" It is produced from a dead virus. So go to http://www.flu.gov and use the site's Flu Vaccine Locator to find locations near you that have seasonal and swine flu vaccines.

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