WASHINGTON — Schoolchildren may be first in line for swine flu vaccine this fall — and might even be able to get the shot right at school.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is taking that possible scenario to school superintendents around the country, urging them to spend the summer planning what to do if the government decides it needs their buildings for mass vaccinations.
“If you think about vaccinating kids, schools are the logical place,” Sebelius told The Associated Press Tuesday.
No decision has been made yet on whether and how to vaccinate millions of Americans against the new flu strain that the World Health Organization last week formally dubbed a pandemic, meaning it now is circulating the globe unchecked.
But the U.S. is pouring money into development of a vaccine in anticipation of giving at least some people the shots. While swine flu for now doesn’t seem any more lethal than the regular flu that strikes each winter, scientists fear it may morph into a more dangerous strain. Regardless, it can kill, and the WHO says about half of the world’s more than 140 known deaths so far have been people who were previously young and healthy.
If that trend continues, “the target may be school-age children as a first priority” for vaccination, Sebelius said in an wide-ranging AP interview. “That’s being watched carefully.”
Those shots would be in addition to the regular winter-flu shots that will be given as usual — and health officials are furiously planning how to make people understand who will need which vaccine, or maybe both.
“We really just don’t know, unfortunately, at this point,” Sebelius said, noting that those decisions will be made in part based on how swine flu behaves in the Southern Hemisphere this summer, where flu season is just beginning.
Companies are on track to provide pilot doses for testing later this summer, she said. Those government-led studies will check if the vaccine seems to work, if one dose or two will be needed, and most important if it’s safe. The last mass vaccination against a different swine flu, in the U.S. in 1976, was marred by reports of a paralyzing side effect — for a feared outbreak that never happened.
So the Food and Drug Administration will closely track vaccine safety, Sebelius said.
The secretary said: “The worst of all worlds is to have the vaccine cause more damage than the flu potential.”