The U.S. Government’s top flu monitoring agency, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has provided new estimates for the deaths, hospitalizations and total infections in the United States from the H1N1 flu (Swine flu). The CDC estimates that 22 million people, or about 7% of the U.S. population, have become infected with the virus between April and October 2009. During this time there have been nearly 4,000 deaths (540 children) and 98,000 hospitalizations. While some of those hospitalizations are from recent flu infections and are ongoing, generally, the majority of people hospitalized do fully recover.
While the seasonal flu vaccine is often reccomended for seniors because they are most suseptible to complications and death from the typical seasonal flu virus, the H1N1 flu (Swine flu) has creates different risks in the general population. Children and pregnant women appear to be at a statistically higher risk of death and complications, while seniors are at a lower risk of serious harm from the H1N1 flu. As with other flues, H1N1 is also of particular risk for people with compromised immune systems. Recently, doctors have found increased danger for people with diabetes.
The CDC monintoring for any reports of illness or problems related to the vaccine, but has not found any significant negative consequences caused by the H1N1 vaccine. The CDC was not anticipating safety issues because of the similarity of the H1N1 vaccine to the seasonale flu vaccine received by millions of Americans each year.
Clinical trials of the vaccine shows that it is effective protection against the H1N1 flu. It is possible that the virus will mutate at some point in the future, and that the vaccine being given now would not be effective against the changed version of the flu. However, there is no evidence that this has happened yet.
Everyone can get the flu, regardless of age, and the typcial experience is like other flues, with symptoms such as fever, body aches, sore throat, etc. But the H1N1 is a new strain and has its own genetic code. It also appears to have a higher infection rate for the fall season than the typical flu, which is most prevalent during the winter months.
The vaccine campaign has led to a wide range of reactions. Some medical professionals have spoken out in concern that they have not been able to get the vaccine immediately, even though they are treating H1N1 cases regularly and are thus placing themselves and their families at greater risk. Other health care workers have filed suit to stop government health authorities from requiring vaccination of health workers.
Similarly, public reactions have been diverse. Some people waiting in long lines in the first days of the vaccination campaign have complained that not enough vaccine was avaiable. However, in the general population, many people are also expressing hesitattion about getting vaccinated, based on the low statistical chance of dying from the flu and fears about negative consequences from being vaccinated. Approximately 40 million doses of the vaccine have become available so far, and more will become available until everyone who wishes is vaccinated.
The flu is expected to continue infecting the populations in the U.S. and around the world in coming months. At this point, H1N1 is being managed as a significant health care event, but not a catastrophic ermegency. The number of people that become very ill or die from the disease is substantial, but not so strikingly different than that caused by seasonal flues. If the majority of children and pregnant women are vaccinated now, the death rate per month could even decline significantly.
It is interesting to think about the impact of modern communications and transportation technology on management of the crisis. Scientists are able to devise strategies to protect the public and communicate many times faster than during any previous epidemic. They will learn from their management of the H1N1 pandemic (yes, it is a pandemic because it has spread widely, even though the mortality rate is low) and incorporate what they learn about managing the crisis into preparations for similar or potentially greater health crises in the future.
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My last post on H1N1 and Bill Maher is linked here.
Photo Credit: John Amis, Associated Press -- from CDC Press Kit