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Swine flu vaccine ready, but are we?

Billions of tax dollars have been paid to giant pharmaceutical companies. Millions of doses of vaccine are on their way to huge warehouses around the country. Thousands of health workers are poised to start injecting into arms and squirting up noses.

The question is: When the swine flu vaccine finally arrives this week, will Americans line up to get it?

As the federal government launches the most ambitious inoculation campaign in U.S. history, several surveys indicate the public is split. A nationally representative poll of 1,042 adults released Friday by the Harvard School of Public Health found that only 40 percent were sure they would receive the vaccine, and about half were certain their children would. Recent research by the University of Michigan and by Consumer Reports yielded similar results.

Although the proportion of Americans who are immunized against the flu in a typical year tends to be even lower than those numbers for many groups, health authorities expected and hoped demand would surge for this vaccine, especially for those most at risk.

“We’re talking about a campaign where ultimately nearly the whole population is supposed to be vaccinated,” said Harvard’s Robert J. Blendon, a professor at the School of Public Health, which has been studying attitudes about the swine flu pandemic for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “This sends a signal that where we are now, that’s not likely to happen.”

Part of the reason for the tepid enthusiasm may be that the vaccine campaign is being buffeted by political and social currents: wariness of mainstream medicine combined with suspicion of big government and a general unease and complacency about vaccines. Together, these trends have sparked a flood of misconceptions about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness, as well as about supposed plans to make the vaccine mandatory.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” said Gregory Poland, a flu vaccine expert at the Mayo Clinic. “Then you mix into that people’s concerns about conspiracy theories and government misbehavior and conflicts of interest and all of that, and the average layperson has a difficult time discerning what to do.”

Experts stressed that the vaccine was made the same way it is every year and there is no reason to think it will pose any greater risk. Serious side effects involving the seasonal vaccines are extremely rare.

“Safety is our top priority,” said Anne Schuchat, the director of the CDC’s national center for immunization and respiratory diseases. While the new H1N1 virus generally causes mild illness, most people have no immunity against it, meaning far more people will probably become infected, sick, end up in the hospital and possibly die than during a usual flu season. Most disturbingly, children, young adults and pregnant women appear to be especially vulnerable.

“It’s surprising numbers are as low as they are, given that public health authorities have tried to emphasize that H1N1 tends to be at much greater risk to children,” said Matthew Davis of the University of Michigan, who led the poll analysis.

The primary reasons people give for their reservations are concern about the vaccine’s safety and doubts about the seriousness of the illness.

“From what I’ve read and what I’ve heard, all it causes is just a mild case of the flu,” said Laura Reavis of Buford, Ga., who has no plans to inoculate herself or her children. Her husband, Daniel, plans to pass, too. “You get sick for a few days or maybe a week, get over it, and life goes on.”

About half of the parents in the University of Michigan survey who said they were not planning to inoculate their children cited fears about possible side effects, while about a third of those in the Harvard survey said they were worried about side effects and only 18 percent thought the vaccine was very safe for children ages 6 months to 2 years.

Doctors are especially concerned about pregnant women, who appear to be particularly at risk. At least 100 pregnant women have required intensive care and 28 have died from the virus. Only 13 percent of those surveyed in the Harvard poll thought the vaccine was safe for pregnant women.

In addition to studies conducted by the vaccine manufacturers, the National Institutes of Health sponsored several clinical trials of the vaccine involving more than 4,600 people, including children and pregnant women. While the tests were designed primarily to determine the vaccine’s effectiveness and the right dose, no side effects were detected other than soreness and redness where the shot was given, a common side effect of the seasonal flu vaccines.

Everyone 6 months to age 24, those who care for babies younger than 6 months, pregnant women, health care workers, and adults with health conditions such as asthma, diabetes and obesity are being given priority for the vaccine.

States began ordering vaccine last week, and the first 600,000 doses are expected to begin to become available as soon as Tuesday.