August 29, 2009 in City, News

Spokane urges slow going on H1N1 vaccine campaign

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photo

Dr. Jay Butler, head of CDC’s H1N1 Vaccine Task Force, takes questions during a public forum at the Spokane Regional Health District today. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held the last of 10 national forums in Spokane to gather input on the H1N1 vaccine campaign.
(Full-size photo)

Spokane would reject any heavy-handed mass vaccination campaign against the swine flu, people told the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a meeting Saturday.

Health officials are preparing for a flu season that could kill 90,000 Americans, but local residents urged the CDC to consider less-aggressive tactics to encourage influenza vaccinations. The CDC held an invitation-only meeting to ask residents what they thought would be the best approach.

The campaign to immunize children and other vulnerable people against the fast-spreading H1N1 influenza virus should be moderate – perhaps even passive – a panel of 71 people specially chosen to represent Spokane told federal health officials. Spokane was among 10 cities selected by the CDC for “public engagement meetings” to help the agency determine how best to distribute the vaccines, which should be ready by mid-October.

“We have 43,000 lab-confirmed cases, and that’s an underestimate,” said Dr. Jay Butler, director of the CDC’s H1N1 vaccine task force. “There are probably a million plus.”

Resistance to a full-throttle campaign is common across the country, polls have shown, even as the virus threatens to deal an especially tough blow to children.

“Because of their behaviors, (children) are very efficient transmitters of the virus,” said Dr. Maxine Hayes, health officer for Washington state.

Only 11 percent of those polled Saturday believe the vaccination program should be a full-scale effort, including such actions as mass vaccination clinics at local schools.

Unlike the seasonal flu, the H1N1 virus does not pose as serious a threat to older Americans. Butler said there’s research showing older people have antibodies in their systems dating to 1947, when a similar flu virus swept through the American population.

If the H1N1 cases grow in severity and number, about 36 percent of the Spokane panel said the vaccination program should be put into high gear; 44 percent said it should remain at moderate levels.

If numbers and severity drop, 76 percent said the vaccination program should be eased.

Any vaccine effort would be voluntary, Hayes said. Her comments refute the rhetoric of a small but vocal minority fearful the government could vaccinate against people’s wishes.

Some believe that vaccines pose a danger and may play a part in causing autism among children. They point to the use of Thermisol, a preservative that contains ethyl-mercury. Thermisol is also used in tattooing.

The majority of medical professionals and researchers discount those fears and hail vaccines as one of medicine’s outstanding advances, saving millions of people from smallpox, measles, mumps and other diseases.

Butler, acknowledging some of the worries about vaccines, said about a third of the vaccines will not include the preservative. Pregnant women will be encouraged to receive such vaccines.

Research and statistical modeling have determined that all influenza viruses lead to 36,000 American deaths each year.

The H1N1 virus is separate from the seasonal flu virus, for which a vaccine is now available.

Influenza viruses are constantly changing. Called antigenic drift, these often subtle changes render existing vaccines ineffective. About once every 30 to 40 years influenza viruses undergo major changes – what scientists call antigenic shift. That’s what happened this year, when researchers discovered that the H1N1 influenza virus had mingled with related similar viruses carried by some bird species and pigs. Hence the name “swine flu.”

Spokane County health officer Dr. Joel McCullough said his agency’s plan for the new vaccines is to use established distribution networks, including supplies to public and private clinics and hospitals. The district is readying a series of fliers and posters about the H1N1 vaccines along with seasonal flu vaccine information.


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