Health

This Week in Swine Flu: How Many Deaths, Vaccine in Sight & Tough Oldsters

80beatsBy Eliza StricklandAug 28, 2009 6:17 PM
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Another day, another swine flu story: Amidst all the chatter, it can be hard to find the most reliable sources and relevant info. To keep you informed of the latest intelligence, 80beats will round up the news each week. On Monday, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued an alarming report spelling out a "plausible scenario" for how the swine flu pandemic will play out during the coming flu season. The report estimated that the H1N1 virus could hospitalize 1.8 million Americans, potentially clogging emergency rooms and intensive care wards, and could kill up to 90,000 people in the United States. In a typical year, the seasonal flu virus kills about 35,000 Americans. But on Tuesday, some public health officials walked back the report's conclusions. One expert who helped prepare the report said that

the numbers were probably on the high side, given that some weeks had passed since the calculations were finished in early August. “As more data has come out of the Southern Hemisphere, where it seems to be fading, it looks as if it’s going to be somewhat milder,” said the expert, Marc Lipsitch.... “If we were betting on the most likely number, I’d say it’s not 90,000 deaths; it’s lower” [The New York Times].

The report had urged the federal government to make swine flu vaccines available in September, when the virus is expected to circulate among students returning to schools and colleges. But the new head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Thomas Frieden, said on Wednesday that it is

unlikely vaccines against H1N1 could get out to the public sooner than mid-October, when mass vaccination is scheduled to start. "We wish we had new vaccine technology that would allow us to turn on a dime and make new vaccine in terms of weeks or months. It's not possible with today's technology to do that," he said [Reuters].

Health officials are reminding the public that most people who become infected with swine flu will experience only mild symptoms and won't be in any danger, similar to a seasonal flu infection. However, the demographics of the two viruses are different: Swine flu appears to take a toll on the young, while most severe seasonal flu cases are found in the elderly. On Thursday, Chicago's public health officials released a report stating that in Chicago,

kids between 5 and 14 were 14 times more likely than the those over 60 to come down with with the H1N1 pandemic flu [The Wall Street Journal].

It's thought that the elderly may have some residual immunity to the H1N1 virus due to related flu outbreaks decades ago. The elevated risk for children is reflected in the federal government's plans for the vaccination campaign: health officials plan

to eventually vaccinate at least 160 million people by December, with pregnant women, health-care workers, children and young adults at the front of the line [Reuters].

However, doctors may run into problems with people who mistrust vaccines, either because they mistakenly believe that they're linked to autism, or because they simply think that a hastily concocted vaccine may have unknown health effects. A troubling survey in Hong Kong that was taken in May (before swine flu was officially declared a pandemic) found that less than half of hospital workers

intended to accept pre-pandemic H1N1 vaccination. The most common reason for refusal was potential side effects [Reuters].

To combat misinformation and to spread the word about vaccinations, the CDC is using such tools as a flu-related Twitter feed, its Facebook page, and interviews with leading scientists on YouTube. Related Content: 80beats: Half of Americans Could Contract Swine Flu This Season 80beats: Study: Tamiflu Too Risky & Ineffective for Use by Children 80beats: Swine Flu Vaccine Trials Begin in Australia; U.S. Up Soon 80beats: Killer Flu Strains Lurk & Mutate for Years Before They Go Pandemic 80beats: How the Federal Government is Preparing for Possible Swine Flu Emergency DISCOVER: Vaccine Production Is Horribly Outdated. Here Are 3 Ways to Fix It. Image: CDC

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