The Obama administration on Thursday said it a nationwide voluntary vaccination program will be necessary this fall to combat the return of the H1N1 virus, or swine flu, and announced $350 million to help local communities prepare for the effort.
“The potential for a significant outbreak in the fall is looming, President Obama said, speaking by phone from Italy to hundreds of state and local officials gathered at an all-day flu summit in Maryland organized by top Cabinet officials.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius told the gathering that they should prepare for a mass vaccination program this fall, the start of the traditional U.S. flu season.
While we have made no final decisions about its scope, and have ‘off ramps’ built into our decision-making process if the circumstances change, at this point, we expect to initiate a voluntary fall vaccination program against the 2009 H1N1 flu virus, Mrs. Sebelius said. This will depend on the availability of a safe vaccine and the absence of changes in the virus that would render the vaccine ineffective.
HHS is making $350 million in grants available to state and local governments to get ready, with $260 million slotted to help communities prepare for a vaccination program, and $90 million to help hospitals plan for a surge of patients.
Mrs. Sebelius said that there is a strong chance of an antiviral-resistant strain becoming dominant in the fall, which would make a vaccine necessary.
In fact, health officials have already begun to see a small number of H1N1 cases where the virus is resistant to Tamiflu, the antiviral medication that has been most effective in mitigating the effects of the virus.
The earliest a vaccine would be ready is by mid-October.
At the same time, Mr. Obama said he wanted to make sure that we are not promoting panic, but we are promoting vigilance and preparation.
The administration wants local officials to be prepared with communications strategies that get accurate information out to their communities, and to counter erroneous information as quickly as possible.
“We may end up averting a crisis. That’s our hope,” Mr. Obama said. “But I think that if we are all working together in a thoughtful, systematic way based on the best science possible, that even if this turns out to be a serious situation, we can mitigate the damage and protect our neighbors and our friends and co-workers.”
The president said that he and his administration have “looked at past cases of this being properly handled and situations like this being improperly handled.”
One example of the latter was a swine flu outbreak in 1976, which was a public relations and political disaster for President Gerald Ford. The government overreacted to infections on an army base in Fort Dix, N.J., and hurriedly pushed a nationwide vaccination program through Congress that ended up killing a number of older Americans and sickening others.
The nation was spooked by talk of the flu, but then by rumors of the vaccine’s side effects, and most Americans chose not to be vaccinated.
“One of the most important differences is where it’s well-handled, state and local officials have complete ownership over this issue, they are providing good ideas to the federal government, they are critical links to inform us what’s working and what’s not,” Mr. Obama said.
As part of the effort to engage and inform the public, HHS launched a call for video public-service announcements, with a prize of $2,500 for the winning entry, to be shown on national television.
“I’m not talking about another boring educational video. This is your chance to be funny, dramatic, or whatever you think will make the most positive impact,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
The summit, held at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., and headed up by Mrs. Sebelius, was organized by the White House to launch a “national influenza campaign” following the appearance of H1N1 this spring.
The latest strain of swine flu appeared in April and has infected over one million people in the U.S., according to government estimates. The number of lab verified cases is just under 34,000.
There have been 170 deaths from the virus, according to the latest count by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
More people have died from the disease so far in the U.S., where the virus first surfaced around the same time it did in Mexico, than in any other country. The virus has killed 429 people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
The virus is expected to return and likely mutate into a potentially more lethal form this fall.