In response to a directive from the Obama administration, states are preparing for an expected resurgence and increased severity of swine flu this fall.
In Maine, as in other states, the focus is on organizing a far-reaching H1N1 vaccination campaign, assuming that a safe and effective vaccine becomes available.
“We’re going to need all hands on deck,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The logistics of planning and executing a large-scale vaccine campaign are daunting, she said Friday. It will require the cooperation and support of public health planners, medical providers, emergency response teams, nonprofit groups and more.
“The last time we really vaccinated everybody was the polio vaccine campaign in 1955,” she said.
That lack of recent experience means the Maine CDC will be working closely with other groups to provide training and support for a coordinated statewide effort. Public health officials forecast the H1N1 vaccine will be available, in limited quantities, in late fall.
Unlike the regular seasonal flu, H1N1 targets primarily children and young adults, with transmission especially robust in schools and other group settings.
One important step in combating the new virus is planned for early fall, when many schools across Maine will hold on-site vaccine clinics for the regular, seasonal influenza. Mills said participating school systems would work with the state to plan the clinics, with a goal of vaccinating as many youngsters as possible. The seasonal flu vaccine will be provided at no charge and will be voluntary.
Children who get immunized against the seasonal flu not only will be protected against that virus but also will be less likely to experience serious illness should they be infected with the H1N1 virus.
Mills said the experience of setting up school-based vaccine clinics will “grease the wheels” for setting up larger, communitywide clinics for the H1N1 vaccine, when it becomes available later in the fall or winter.
Confirmed swine flu cases among Maine residents stand at more than 100, with half again as many cases in visitors from out of state. Mills said there are many more affected people who have not been tested. Public health officials and medical providers now assume that anyone with symptoms such as a fever and cough is infected. Fortunately, Mills said, in most cases symptoms have been relatively mild, with only a handful of hospitalizations and no deaths reported.
But the combination of the seasonal flu and the H1N1 strain could very well pack a more deadly punch, she said. Because H1N1 and seasonal flu respond to different medications, and because H1N1 appears to be developing resistance to the popular antiviral Tamiflu, Mills said, prevention though vaccination and other means must be the first line of defense.
On Friday afternoon, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced the availability of $1.5 million in grants to help Maine prepare for the 2009 novel H1N1 flu virus and the fall flu season.