Friday, April 30, 2010

Obama Administration Discusses Lessons Learned from Swine Flu

Public health officials did much to alleviate spread of swine flu in 2009, but more needs to be done.

Too many people still mistrust vaccines – health care providers included – and vaccine production technology needs a shot in the arm. That’s the takeaway from the swine flu experience of 2009, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said last week at the 44th National Immunization Conference in Atlanta. And while communication systems were strong during the early days of the swine flu outbreak, more needs to be done to reach out to some communities, especially minority communities, and above all physicians, Sebelius said.

“We shouldn’t have to convince health providers that vaccines are safe and that they work. But, despite the fact that we had more health providers than ever getting vaccinated last year, there was still a sizable number who did not. We need providers on the front lines. We need to make sure that the vulnerable people they work with aren’t at greater risk,” Sebelius said.

Sebelius’ address comes one year after the panic of last April, when public health officials were still puzzling out the new, aggressive strain of flu that had clearly invaded the New York City public school system. Later dubbed swine flu, the virus appeared to hop-scotch over typical influenza victims – the elderly and those with compromised immune systems – and instead was striking down and even killing young, otherwise healthy people and pregnant women with a vengeance.

The unknowns surrounding the swine flu – and the rapidity of its spread – created simultaneous panic over its origins and effects and suspicion over the vaccine that arrived on the scene. The World Health Organization declared an official pandemic in April of 2009, and has since had to defend itself against accusations that the declaration was motivated by a desire to enrich the pharmaceutical companies that were working on the vaccine. Too many people, including those whose medical conditions made them susceptible to swine flu complications, refused to take the vaccine out of fear it had been rushed and had not been properly vetted. Sebelius’ own agency, the HHS, had to admit that original estimates of the country’s ability to produce the vaccine had been overstated. This in particular is troubling to Sebelius, who used the confusion around vaccine production to illustrate the need for better vaccine production methods.

“This flu season has made us even more committed to ensuring that vaccine production—and all of our medical countermeasures—are state-of-the-art. Our experience with the ups and downs of the vaccine manufacturing process has made clear the need to enhance our country’s influenza vaccine manufacturing capability,” Sebelius said, adding the HHS was already working with vaccine companies to move past the “egg-based” technology, in which vaccines are basically grown in eggs, to more advanced and reliable method.
Sebelius is right. We need to learn the lessons provided in 2009 and then do it better next time. Some southern states are already showing swine flu activity, though it’s too soon to know if that will develop into a true outbreak. But if and when swine flu does return in greater numbers, we want there to be plenty of vaccine to give, and plenty of people willing to receive it.

Photo Credit: Justin Hourigan

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