Flu vaccine slow getting to Maine

Posted Nov. 19, 2009, at 9:47 p.m.

Fewer than two-thirds of the very highest-priority Mainers — children and pregnant women — have been vaccinated against the H1N1 flu, largely due to the national shortage of vaccine, according to Maine’s top public health official.

“I know there are a lot of people in Maine who want this vaccine, and we want to get it to them,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. But the state can’t distribute doses it doesn’t have, she said.

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Meanwhile, as the shortage worsens, H1N1 continues to spread in Maine. Mills said the outbreak is unlikely to peak here for at least another two weeks. This past week, 50 people were hospitalized with severe illness, half of them children. Since August, five adults with underlying health problems have died of complications of the H1N1 virus. Flulike illness now accounts for one of every six visits to Maine emergency departments.

Click here for a chart of H1N1 vaccine availability in Maine.

Mills said Thursday she continues to press federal officials for more doses of H1N1 vaccine for Maine. In the meantime, she said, Mainers in high-risk categories, including youngsters, expectant mothers, and adults with underlying health problems, should ask their doctors for anti-viral medications such as Tamiflu if they develop flulike symptoms — high fever, sore throat, cough and extreme fatigue.

As of the end of this week, Mills said, Maine will have received only 210,500 doses of the new vaccine. That falls far short the 527,000 doses the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention promised in August to ship to Maine by the end of November. In a revised statement in September, the federal agency said approximately 321,000 doses would be in Maine by now.

There are about 300,000 children and pregnant women in Maine, Mills said — the most important groups to protect, from a public health perspective.

“This is a very frustrating situation for all of us, as we thought we would have much more vaccine by now,” Mills said. Of the doses that have been received, about 12,000 were administered early on to another high-priority group, health care providers who work in emergency departments and other settings with a lot of public contact. The primary goal of vaccinating that group is to prevent them from infecting members of the public, Mills said.

On a brighter note, Mills said, nearly 95 percent of all schools in Maine have now held H1N1 vaccine clinics for their students, although only about 60 percent of Maine students have actually received the vaccine.

More than 140 schools have reported high absentee rates, at least in part due to H1N1. Two schools, including Washington Academy in East Machias, have experienced such high rates of illness that they have shut down for a few days.

“We decided the prudent thing was to give everyone a chance to rest and recover,” said Judson McBrine, headmaster at Washington Academy. Of the 415-member student body, 115 were sick this week, along with at least 11 faculty and staff, he said. The school canceled classes on Wednesday and Thursday, along with all sports and other after-school activities.

Washington Academy offered all students a seasonal flu vaccine earlier in the year, and will have an H1N1 clinic today. McBrine said the school received about 200 doses of the H1N1 vaccine earlier this week.

On Monday, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, teamed up with Sen. Joe Lieberman, of Connecticut, to demand answers from the federal Department of Health and Human Services about the national shortage of H1N1 vaccine and the distribution of available supplies. The Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, of which Lieberman is the chairman and Collins is the ranking member, conducted hearings on the matter this week.

On Thursday, Collins and Lieberman followed up with a second letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, urging a redesign of vaccine distribution strategies so that states like Maine that are still experiencing a rapid increase in cases get vaccine sooner than states where the outbreak has leveled off.

In her remarks on Thursday, Mills said that even if vaccine doses in Maine don’t become readily available until after the outbreak peaks, people still should get vaccinated when they can.

“We expect H1N1 to continue to circulate for a long period of time, maybe two or three years,” she said.

Gov. John Baldacci on Thursday renewed his H1N1 civil emergency proclamation, originally signed on Sept 30. The designation facilitates the distribution of vaccines and anti-viral medications and activates a multiagency response plan.

mhaskell@bangordailynews.net

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