H1N1 influenza, or swine flu, continues to spread in Maine. Recent outbreaks in two unidentified schools in the central part of Maine drove absentee rates above 15 percent, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and officials say the highly contagious virus is likely to spread quickly among children and young adults now that schools and colleges are back in session.
Public health experts in Maine and around the country are awaiting the arrival of the first doses of H1N1 flu vaccine, currently in production and being studied in limited clinical trials. A total of about 40 million doses of the H1N1 vaccine is expected to be available in Maine and other states sometime during the first full week of October, targeted for high-risk groups such as children 6 months old to young adults to age 24, pregnant women, anyone with chronic illness, caregivers of young children, health care workers and emergency responders.
Subsequent shipments of the new vaccine delivered in the following weeks will be available for lower-risk individuals who want it.
During a press conference on Thursday in Washington, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Dr. Anne Schuchat, chief health officer of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, discussed the H1N1 vaccine campaign, seeking to dispel what they said are myths about the vaccine and its distribution.
Among their points:
• Getting the H1N1 vaccine, while strongly recommended for everyone by the U.S. CDC, is purely voluntary.
• The U.S. government has purchased about 250 million doses, in both injectable and nasal spray forms, which will be provided free to clinics in this country. In most cases, individuals will not be charged anything for their vaccine. Some doses also will be sent to developing nations.
• Most likely, one dose will be enough to develop immunity to H1N1 in adults and in children older than 10, but younger children will need two doses several weeks apart.
• Multidose vials of the H1N1 vaccine will contain the preservative thimerisol, but single-syringe doses for pregnant women and very young children will not. Thimerisol is thought by some people to be associated with autism and other neurological problems, though most public health officials say there is no connection.
• At this time, there is no plan to use adjuvants such as squalene in the vaccine, which accelerate immune response and reduce the dose needed. Squalene and similar adjuvants are suspected by some people of contributing to the symptoms of Gulf War syndrome.
• Taking an anti-viral medication such as Tamiflu or Relenza will not prevent a person from getting the virus and may actually increase susceptibility. Overuse of these medications also may worsen early indications that the H1N1 virus is developing a resistance to them.
• It is safe and effective to get both the seasonal flu vaccine and the H1N1 vaccine at the same time, unless both are in the form of a nasal spray; these should be separated by one month.
• People who think they have been sick with H1N1 should still get a vaccine, since most cases are unconfirmed.
In response to a reporter’s question, Schuchat said illegal immigrants, especially children, would not be refused the vaccine.
“It is important to protect individuals as well as those around them,” she said.
“The worst of all possible worlds is to turn away the children,” Sebelius added.
Asked about the safety of the new vaccine, Sebelius said, “It is made the same way as the seasonal flu vaccine is made. We have a high degree of confidence in the vaccine’s safety.”
Meanwhile, all states are affected by a bottlenecked supply of the regular seasonal flu vaccine. In her weekly influenza update on Thursday, Dr. Dora Anne Mills of the Maine CDC said a number of scheduled vaccine clinics at schools have been postponed and some large public clinics may also be delayed. All doses of seasonal flu vaccine should be in Maine by the end of October or early November, Mills said.