- The Washington Times - Friday, July 10, 2009

The Obama administration Thursday urged state and local officials to prepare vaccination programs to combat the swine flu this fall, saying the H1N1 virus poses a significant threat.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius told leaders attending a flu summit that $350 million in grants is available to help with voluntary vaccination programs and for hospitals to get ready for “a surge of patients.” The earliest a vaccine would be ready is mid-October.

“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 at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

The virus, which has killed about 429 people worldwide, is expected to return and potentially mutate into a more lethal form, according to health officials. It has killed 170 in the United States, according to Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mrs. Sebelius said 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 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.

President Obama, speaking by phone from Italy to hundreds of state and local officials, said he wanted to “make sure that we are not promoting panic, but we are promoting vigilance and preparation.”

The president said 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 Ford. The government overreacted to infections on an army base in Fort Dix, N.J., and rammed 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.

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