- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on Monday said the unpredictable H1N1 flu pandemic is not over and implored parents to get their children vaccinated, rapping “misperceptions” about its safety.

Dr. Anthony Fauci urged against complacency and called for people to be persistent in pursuit of the vaccine — even if they have to wait months as production catches up with demand.

“There are a lot of cases; it could peak and come down, it could come back again later on in the winter. So to think that you’re out of the woods if you haven’t been infected now is really inaccurate,” Dr. Fauci told reporters and editors of The Washington Times.

“Right now, even though people have been waiting in line and may not have gotten the vaccine, this pandemic is not over, it is unpredictable,” he said.

Some health workers have refused to take the vaccine, and some pediatricians and parents have refused to give it to children, even though they are among the most vulnerable groups.

“The risk that you’re taking, even though there’s a very small risk that your child is going to be hospitalized and require intensive care and perhaps even die [from swine flu] …, that risk is greater than the risk of the vaccine being a problem. That’s the thing the people don’t seem to understand,” he said.

He said there was an “anti-vaccine” attitude among some Americans, prompted in part by distrust of the government.

“Thirty-six thousand people a year die of seasonal flu. There is no way that 36,000 people die from vaccines. The numbers are strikingly different,” he said.

Dr. Fauci said that opponents of the vaccine are a small but vocal group, and that the government is trying to “educate” them through local medical societies, public service announcements and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site.

“Some of them say, ‘Well, it’s a brand-new vaccine, I don’t trust it, I don’t want to have my patient get it,’ ” Dr. Fauci said.

“First, there’s no vaccine, there’s nothing, that is 100 percent safe. Having said that, in reality, this is not a brand-new vaccine. This vaccine would have been viewed as a strain change on a seasonal basis if it had been identified last November or December.”

He asked those who are uncertain for their own sake about whether to get vaccinated to consider the impact on others if they were to get the flu and pass it on to a number of other people.

“There are two issues: There’s the individual benefit, and there’s the benefit to society,” he said.

Some 6 million Americans have been infected to date, he estimated, and 30 million doses of the H1N1 vaccine have been made available. The gap between demand and supply, he said, is “beginning to close.”

Authorities were caught short by swine flu, he said, because it appeared in Mexico in April, about the end of the normal flu season.

“Right from the get-go we were three months behind,” Dr. Fauci admitted.

More investment is needed in next-generation technology, because the “tried and true” method of growing vaccines in eggs is too slow, especially in the case of H1N1, and has too much variability, he said.

That will require the government to offer industry some incentives, because there are too many uncertainties in the vaccine business for the private sector to invest enough on its own, he said.

The government partially funded a Novartis plant in North Carolina with $487 million in January, before swine flu was identified. The Swiss company’s plant is not yet operational, but would use a new cell-based technology that is reportedly more predictable and controllable and produces vaccines faster.

“But the real endgame is to bring the technology into the 21st century and use molecular biological techniques so that you can really have control about making the purified proteins that you want,” Dr. Fauci said.

“What we’re faced with is the need to partner with companies so that we can essentially assume some of the expenses of making the transition from egg to cell and then ultimately the basic research, which is what we do, which takes years, to go into the avant-garde technology,” he said.

• Ann Geracimos can be reached at agericamos@washingtontimes.com.

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