New campaign will prod the public to take its flu medicine

Faced with about a half-million soon-to-expire doses of swine flu vaccine, Maryland health officials announced Thursday a new vaccination campaign next week with 150 free clinics statewide.

Maryland and federal officials are confronted with a predicament: Try to convince a skeptical public it's not too late to get vaccinated against the H1N1 virus, or throw away millions of doses if they aren't used before they expire.

Of the state's 2.3 million doses, about 1.8 million have been given, said officials with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The vaccination campaign rolls out next week, but radio spots publicizing the events started today.

H1N1, which appeared in the United States nearly a year ago, has been unpredictable from the start, said health officials who warned that despite the warm weather and "sporadic" rates of infection, the virus could stick around through the summer.

"We have a virus that continues to circulate, we have population at risk and we have vaccine available," said Frances Phillips, Maryland's deputy secretary of public health services. "There's every reason to promote vaccination now even though it's an odd time."

Maryland's push to use up the vaccine comes as the state reported Thursday its 45th death from the virus. Officials wouldn't offer details except to say it was an adult from the Baltimore area.

Nationwide, the virus has sickened 60 million people, and was responsible for 265,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 deaths. About 36,000 people die in a typical flu season, but federal health officials note this new flu has meant severe complications for children, pregnant women and people with underlying health problems.

Maryland's effort comes on the heels of reports in The Washington Post that the federal government has nearly 72 million unused doses of H1N1 vaccine that could be thrown away.

Much of the vaccine hasn't expired, but most if it will by the end of June, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. She said every year some portion of the flu vaccine is discarded. This year, in particular, officials wanted to have enough for every American who wanted one, she said.

"It's unlikely that all the vaccine out there will be used up," she said. "But we made a conscious decision to be prepared and assured that we would have more than enough vaccine."

The overabundance raises questions about how the government handled a more than $1 billion mass vaccination campaign to confront the pandemic.

At the height of the outbreak last fall, infectious disease experts and public health officials warned of dire consequences if people didn't get vaccinated. The virus was new, spreading fast and, unlike seasonal strains, was striking the young and largely sparing the elderly. At one point, flu experts estimated nearly half of Americans could be infected and 90,000 could die. But vaccine makers couldn't fill the government's requests fast enough, and initial shortfalls left anxious-vaccine seekers frustrated.

By December, infections began to wane and once-mobbed clinics saw just a trickle of people.

"It was a disappointment that the vaccine was delayed in arriving when we had people clamoring for vaccine," Phillips said. "Matching the vaccine availability to the timing of disease is a tricky science and one we need to do better with next time."

Earlier this week federal officials continued their vaccine mantra and warned of new infections in the Southeast, even in these final days of the flu season.

Meanwhile, the CDC released data Thursday on this season's flu vaccination coverage in the states and among health care workers.

States varied widely in vaccination rates. Nationally, nearly 1 in four people — 23.9 percent — received a swine flu vaccine, the report found. For children under 18, the median rate nationally was 37 percent. Maryland's rate for children was slightly higher at 41 percent.

For years, public health officials have bemoaned the relatively low rates of health care workers who receive an annual flu vaccination - some federal estimates are as low as 42 percent. This year, that figure was 62 percent for the seasonal flu vaccine but just 37 percent for H1N1, according to the CDC survey.

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