Pandemic over, it's a normal flu season: Plenty of vaccine should be available

Some locations already have the new vaccine, a three-in-one formulation.
Some locations already have the new vaccine, a three-in-one formulation. (Marvin Joseph/the Washington Post)
By Lena H. Sun
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Remember the lines last winter for hard-to-find flu shots, the closed schools and the craziness about an H1N1 pandemic? Health officials say all those are things of the past: The pandemic is officially over, there's plenty of vaccine available already, and this year, one shot will deal with most of the different flus expected this winter.

Health officials say this year's flu season is expected to return to normal now that the H1N1 pandemic has ended. In the Washington area, there will be some school-based clinics to vaccinate children, but there won't be the mass clinics and long lines that characterized last year's flu season, local and state health officials said.

The mass clinics were part of the unprecedented global response to the first flu pandemic in more than 40 years. The World Health Organization declared an end to the pandemic last month, based on indications that the H1N1 flu was transitioning to a more seasonal virus. Unlike last year, when there was one vaccine for H1N1 flu and another for seasonal flu, this year's vaccine is a "three-in-one" that includes protection against H1N1 as well as two other strains.

Because flu viruses change from year to year, vaccinations received last year won't protect you this year. For the first time, federal officials are recommending that everyone older than 6 months get vaccinated. It takes about two weeks for antibodies to develop and provide protection, so it's worth getting the shot as soon as it's available. "This is the first time they have recommended it for [essentially] the entire population," said Frances Phillips, Maryland's deputy secretary for public health. "Everybody is at risk. Everybody should get one."

And unlike last year, officials expect that there will be enough vaccine and that most people will be returning to their traditional methods of getting it: from doctors and retailers. Some sources, such as Safeway pharmacies, health-care providers and MinuteClinic locations in CVS stores, say they already have the new vaccine, in advance of the November-to-May period when, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most influenza occurs.

In an average flu season in the United States, the CDC estimates that 5 to 20 percent of the population will be sickened; that would be 15 million to 62 million people. More than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu-related complications each year, and tens of thousands die from flu-related causes. Most affected people feel lousy for a few days, with symptoms including fever, chills and muscle aches. Others, including infants, the elderly, pregnant women and people with heart, lung or kidney disease, can get much sicker. Flu can cause high fever and pneumonia. It can cause diarrhea and seizures in infants.

The nasal spray to prevent the flu, which contains weakened live virus, is approved for use only in healthy people ages 2 to 49 who are not pregnant. The shot, which contains killed virus, should not be given to people who have severe allergies to eggs or to a previous flu shot, nor to people with a history of Guillain-Barre syndrome. Officials recommend that children younger than 9 being vaccinated for the first time should receive two doses -- either mist or injection -- spaced at least four weeks apart.

Locally, officials are not planning the type of mass clinics for the general public that were in place last year, but some jurisdictions will be giving free flu shots and sprays at school-based clinics. Parents should see information coming home in backpacks over the next few weeks.

"At this point, we do not have a novel flu virus creating the kinds of situations that we were dealing with last summer and into the fall," said Pierre Vigilance, the District's health director. Just as important in flu prevention, he said, are simple steps, such as washing hands, covering your mouth when you cough and staying home when sick, he said.

In Montgomery County, health and school officials are planning to have clinics this fall at some high schools and elementary schools, where children will be able to receive free vaccinations. Parents will get details later in the school year.

Prince George's County will offer free sprays at each of its 65 elementary schools between October and early December, said Donald Shell, the county's health officer. The vaccine will be given during the school day to students who present the required consent form, which means parents will not need to accompany their children.

Prince George's schools had lower than expected vaccination rates for the H1N1 flu virus last year among African American and Hispanic populations, reflecting a national trend for those groups, and officials are hoping to improve on that this year. (That rate ranged from 3 to 4 percent at some schools last year to 51 to 52 percent at others, Shell said.) "We had some distrust of the vaccine and of the whole process last year," he said.

The county has been working with pastors and other community leaders to overcome misperceptions about the vaccine. Using information gathered from a survey sent to 1,500 county residents this summer, officials are tailoring a media campaign that focuses on flu facts: Three of every 10 children get sick with flu every season, and when children miss school, their parents miss work.

Some Northern Virginia jurisdictions, such as Fairfax County, traditionally do not offer vaccinations in schools. Last year's pandemic was the exception. In Arlington County, the school-based clinics were so successful -- with more than 50 percent vaccinated, the highest rate in the state -- that health officials are trying to convince private-sector providers to hold clinics at convenient locations in some neighborhoods as part of a pilot program to reach a wider population, according to Reuben Varghese, Arlington's health officer.

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