Friday, March 19, 2010

Lessons from the H1N1 flu pandemic one year in

It’s been a long year for those of us following the H1N1 flu pandemic and even longer for the health workers on the front lines fighting the flu. As we approach the one-year anniversary of its arrival, what have we learned?

Let’s start with the numbers. Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first began tracking the outbreak in April 2009 through mid-February 2010, researchers estimate that about 59 million Americans were infected with H1N1, roughly 98,000 people were hospitalized and about 3,900 people died from H1N1-related deaths. While the virus was widespread, health officials are relieved that the virus was not as lethal as some feared. Thankfully, reports of H1N1 flu activity have slowed over the last couple of months, although we could experience another wave.

And how about our response? According to a recent assessment by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, preparedness and partnerships have paid off.
"Working with partners in government, industry and around the world, we rapidly characterized the virus, developed a candidate vaccine, made sure it was safe and began production," Sebelius said. "By acting quickly, we made the first doses of the vaccine available in October, less than six months after the flu was identified."

She noted that new partnerships with groups such as schools and businesses helped spread the word about H1N1 flu and the new vaccine quickly, and helped get three times as many health workers out to vaccinate people against H1N1 than for usual childhood immunization efforts. That was very helpful for vaccinating children, one of the high-risk groups. And partnerships with neighborhood clinics allowed the government to create an online flu shot locator that helped people easily find a nearby clinic.

As for challenges? Sebelius said the nation needs safe and effective vaccines that can be developed more quickly and more reliably. Health officials would like to respond to any future crisis within weeks, not months.

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