US officials preview upcoming flu season, stress vaccination

Sep 28, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – In a look ahead to the coming flu season this fall and winter, federal officials said experts have a good grasp on the strains expected to circulate and plenty of vaccine on hand.

At a US Health and Human Services (HHS) Web presentation today, HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius pointed out that last year public health officials were managing a new virus that arrived early in the flu season, well in advance of a steady supply of the pandemic vaccine.

"This year scientists know what's coming, and we have plenty of vaccine," she said. According to a Sep 24 estimate from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of Sep 17, about 89 million doses of seasonal flu vaccine have been distributed, and manufacturers project they will produce 160 million to 165 million total doses for the upcoming season.

Public health officials have said they expect the 2009 H1N1 strain to reappear and will probably circulate alongside seasonal influenza A (H3N2) and influenza B strains, as it has over the past several months in other parts of the world, such as China and South Africa.

This season's flu vaccine for Northern Hemisphere countries includes the 2009 H1N1 virus along with a Perth-like H3N2 strain and an influenza B Brisbane strain, a member of the Victoria lineage.

In early August the CDC alerted healthcare providers about small H3N2 outbreaks in Iowa and scattered H3N2 cases in other states.

Anne Schuchat, MD, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said that in the United States flu seems to be settling into more of a normal seasonal pattern. "There is flu around here and there with a few clusters, but nothing major," she said, adding that the strains the CDC is seeing look very similar to what's included in this year's vaccine.

Though the CDC monitors flu activity year-round, it will issue its first weekly flu surveillance report for the new season on Oct 15, which will cover activity for the week ending Oct 9.

Howard Koh, MD, MPH, assistant secretary for health at the HHS, said the major message for this year's flu season is the new universal immunization recommendation, which advises flu vaccination for almost everyone age 6 months and older. "Last year we learned that everyone is vulnerable to flu," he said. "The flu shot is a great investment in prevention."

Sebelius said a new provision of the healthcare reform bill is designed to ease access to flu shots, other vaccines, and a range of prevention measures. She said new insurance plans written after Sep 23 must offer the prevention measures, including flu vaccination, without copays. She added that the same policy will take effect for seniors in the Medicare program in 2011.

During today's Web conference, Sebelius also announced that HHS would be teaming up with Google to offer a flu vaccine locator on the HHS' flu.gov Web site. She said she expects the locator to launch next week.

Schuchat said people often ask about the best timing for getting their flu shots, and some worry that early-season vaccination won't protect them throughout the whole flu season. She said the best time to get the flu shot is when it's available in the community. "I got mine Friday, and it should protect me the whole season. I'm advising friends and family to do the same," she said.

See also:

Archived Web conference of HHS flu season preview

CDC table of total 2010-11 seasonal flu vaccine doses distributed

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