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Sweating the swine flu

10/8/2009 © Health News Florida

Update 2 p.m: 
Nasal mist vaccine against H1N1 "swine flu" vaccine began arriving in Florida today starting with St. John's and Jefferson counties, state health officials say. (The nasal mist cannot be used by pregnant women or children under 2.)

Two things have become increasingly clear as public health officials prepare for swine-flu vaccine distribution:  People are confused about whether to get the H1N1 vaccine, a confusion that may lead to foot-dragging. Yet delays can be dangerous.

Using mathematical modeling, researchers at Stanford University Medical Center concluded that vaccinating 40 percent of the population this month, as opposed to next month, could save many lives and vastly lower treatment costs. However, there is unlikely to be enough vaccine produced in time to vaccinate that many people this month, the study notes.

Therefore, health officials have to walk a fine line. They must sound the alarm loudly enough to get targeted risk groups in for vaccination as soon as supplies come in to local health departments and clinics, probably next week.
But they must mute their alarm enough to keep the second-tier risk groups -- or worse, those at low risk -- from swamping clinics before the high-risk patients get vaccinated.

And they must make these confusing messages clear enough to keep the public from giving up and walking away.

Given the confusion, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Health have put up Web sites -- for CDC and for DOH -- full of information on the H1N1 vaccine. But those sites still lack information on where and when to get the vaccine.

For Florida information, both sites link to the same page, entitled “Florida Public Health Sponsored H1N1 Flu Vaccine Clinics.” The map, divided by counties, is designed to let people find a vaccine site by clicking on their county. But as of this morning, it still had no information.
No matter which county is clicked on, the message says: “Currently, Florida has no large-scale H1N1 clinics scheduled. Due to the fact the vaccine is available in limited amounts, current supplies are distributed to specified, identified high-risk groups.”

Apparently the map will provide more information at some point in the future, but the site doesn’t say when. 

The state DOH reported yesterday that 109 Floridians have died of lab-verified H1N1. But the virus does not appear to have a mortality rate above that of seasonal flu; health officials say most of those who have died had underlying health problems. 

There are hints that the campaign will begin in earnest Monday, Oct. 19. That is the date that the Sun-Sentinel reports when the three big South Florida counties will begin giving vaccine from the first shipment. It will be available at public health clinics and through some physicians -- those who have signed agreements to treat certain patients first, since the initial batch will be limited.

Preference will be given to those most at risk for getting and spreading the flu: healthy children and adults age 2 to 24, health care workers, and caregivers under age 50 who are taking care of infants. Older adults have some immunity to H1N1 from exposure to related flu strains during their childhood. 

More information on the vaccination campaigns for seasonal and swine flu is expected later today. Gov. Charlie Crist and State Surgeon General Ana Viamonte Ros will have a phone-in for media today at 12:30. Health News Florida will update this story as news comes in.

--Carol Gentry can be reached at 727-410-3266 or by email.