June 17, 2009
Government Prepares For Mass Swine Flu Vaccinations
On Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said she is urging school superintendents around the country to spend the summer preparing for the possibility of turning schools into swine flu vaccine clinics this fall.
"If you think about vaccinating kids, schools are the logical place," Sebelius told The Associated Press.
Last week the World Health Organization formally declared the swine flu a pandemic, meaning it is now spreading throughout the world unchecked.
The U.S. has not made a formal decision on how to vaccinate millions of Americans against the flu, although money is being poured into developing a vaccine for the strain.
Currently the swine flu doesn't appear to be any more harmful than regular flu, which kills 36,000 Americans each year, although scientists do fear that the strain has the potential to develop into a much more serious flu.
According to the WHO, nearly half of the 160 people who have died from swine flu have been young and healthy.
That could mean school-age children would be the first priority to receive vaccinations, said Sebelius.
Schools have teamed up with health officials in the past to provide flu vaccinations, although the event is rare.
Last fall, 140 schools scheduled flu vaccinations for students, and some offered them to entire families.
According to Sebelius, meeting President Barack Obama's top healthcare priority of covering the uninsured could take until 2012 to implement, even if it Congress passes legislation this fall.
Implementing the new programs is estimated to cost over $1 trillion over 10 years.
The administration also plans to eliminate health disparities between minority groups and whites.
According to Sebelius, the most severe disparities are found among American Indians.
She pledged to reverse this "a historic failure of the government," saying the U.S. must provide free health care on reservations, and give the Indian Health Service the funds it needs.
Sebelius faces the question of whether to push forward with swine flu vaccinations this fall in edition to the annual winter flu vaccination. Communication on who needs which, or both, vaccines will be a key challenge.
She will soon call together state governors to see that the summer is used to prepare for the possibility of a severe flu season, instead of being "used as vacation months."
"We can always sort of back off" if the new flu fades away, she said, "but we can't wait til October hits and say, 'Oh my heavens, what are we going to do?'"
In 1976, a mass vaccination against a different swine flu occurred, but was spoiled by reports of paralyzing vaccine side effects.
The Food and Drug Administration will thoroughly test for swine flu vaccine safety, Sebelius said.
"The worst of all worlds is to have the vaccine cause more damage than the flu potential," she added.
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