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Homeland Security

Safety of H1N1 Vaccine, Hospital Readiness Worry Americans

By Carol Pearson
17 October 2009

Countries in the northern hemisphere are starting to distribute the H1N1 flu vaccine as part of a massive immunization program against the viral pandemic. Parents and some professionals are concerned about the safety of the vaccine, while some doctors question the ability of hospitals to handle serious cases.

Demand for the H1N1 flu vaccine has drawn scores of people to vaccination clinics in the U.S.

Michelle Lowrey has three young children and one on the way. "I have every reason to be here today," she said.

Pregnant women have a higher risk of complications from the H1N1. And at least 86 American children have died from the new virus.

Katherine Blake is concerned about her young son. "He's high risk, he had open heart surgery as a baby so I've been very nervous for him," she said.

The US Centers for Disease Control reports this new flu virus has spread throughout most of the United States.

Still, some Americans say they will not get vaccinated.

"We live in Sacramento," said one man. "There's some cases of the swine flu there, but not a lot, so [it] just hasn't really affected us."

Some are concerned about the safety of the vaccine because it has been produced so fast, and because it contains a preservative that some parents say can cause autism.

Dr. Anne Schuchat from the Centers for Disease Control says the vaccine is safe and is also available without the preservative.

"We are not cutting any corners in the safety of the production of this vaccine or in the testing and oversight of this vaccine," she said. "And it's very important that this process be done carefully and safely."

Public health officials and doctors are redoubling efforts to promote vaccination as the best protection against H1N1.

Dr. Peter Holbrook at Children's National Medical Center in Washington says people are mistaken if they think the flu is similar to a cold.

"It's very important to think very clearly about the vaccination and the disease we're preventing," he said. "This is not a mild disease, it's a significant disease."

Dr. Holbrook says even mild cases cause serious illness and severe cases can worsen rapidly.

Doctors are concerned that many hospitals may not have enough doctors or staff to handle a major outbreak. Dr. Arthur Kellermann at Emory School of Medicine is concerned about where to put patients who need intensive care.

"We need [to] prepare our critical care units and our healthcare systems for the possibility of making very tough choices about who gets into an intensive care unit and who does not get into an intensive care unit," he said.

If the H1N1 virus follows the course it took when it broke out last March, the disease will peak and then fall off in roughly seven weeks. If that is the case, Dr. Holbrook says it may already be near the peak in the United States.

"But that's only with the understanding that there could easily be another wave that comes in the winter time," he said.

One thing all specialists agree on is a novel flu is unpredictable.

And there is not enough H1N1 vaccine to go around, even in the United States.

The World Health Organization says international donations of the vaccine should arrive in developing countries in a few weeks.

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