Dec 1, 2009 (CIDRAP News) – Decreasing pandemic flu activity and growing supplies of vaccine offer a window of opportunity for people to protect themselves from the virus, especially if the nation experiences a third wave of infections, Thomas Frieden, MD, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said today.
At a press briefing Frieden said the number of pandemic vaccine doses available to states for ordering has grown to about 70 million, nearly 9 million more than the CDC's last vaccine supply report on Nov 25. Yesterday the CDC reported that flu activity was widespread in only 32 states, down 11 since the previous weekly update.
"Only time will tell what the rest of the season will bring, "he said. "There are still lots of kids who are sick and lots of people who are at risk of getting influenza and could end up getting severely ill from it."
Frieden said the CDC conducted an informal poll of about a dozen of the world's leading influenza experts to see if they think there will be another wave of pandemic infections in the months ahead. He said half said yes, half said not likely, and one advised officials to "flip a coin."
"We don't know what the future will hold. What we can do is track it [the virus] very closely," Frieden said. He pointed out that during the pandemic of 1957, the nation saw a large surge at the beginning of the school year followed by a big increase in severe illnesses and deaths starting in December and extending through February. However, he said it's not clear if the back-to-school wave of illnesses then was the first or second wave of the pandemic.
Though no one can predict what will happen, Frieden said officials do know that vaccination is the best way to protect people.
CDC scientists have been closely tracking a mutation identified in Norway and previously found in samples from other countries. Frieden said so far scientists have determined that the mutation is present in fewer than 10% of very severe or fatal pandemic H1N1 infections, and they know that the virus can cause deep lung infections without the mutation.
Also, scientists haven't seen any clusters of cases involving the mutation and haven't associated it with antiviral resistance or a change in vaccine effectiveness, Frieden said. "It's interesting, but not something we should be unduly concerned about."
Frieden acknowledged the public's frustration with still-scarce vaccine supplies and said he can understand why people are perplexed when they see different states and areas vary in the way they distribute doses.
For example, yesterday the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services announced that it would start offering the vaccine to all state residents starting today. Sally Abbott, preparedness program director, said in a press release that the state has more than 131,000 doses, with more on the way. "We feel that by now everyone in the priority groups who has wanted a vaccine has had the chance to get one," she said. However, several other states are still offering the vaccine only to the priority groups recommended by the CDC's vaccine advisory panel.
Frieden said some states are focusing on school-based vaccination clinics, while others are opting to run most vaccination efforts through doctors' offices. "That variability is a challenge but is also one of the things that helps us learn better ways to do it and allows creativity at the state and local levels to reach out to people who are hard to reach," he said.
Nov 30 Alaska Health and Social Services press release