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Sebelius promotes flu vaccine

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 6, 2009 - U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius' H1N1 virus publicity tour hit St. Louis on Tuesday, just as the region prepares for an influx of flu vaccines and braces for a potentially severe flu season.

Sebelius and U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr., D-St. Louis, toured the Saint Louis University Center for Vaccine Development's Doisy Research Center, where clinical trials of the H1N1 vaccine have taken place over the past few months.

Sebelius spoke here a day after the first shipments of the H1N1 flu vaccine arrived - St. Louis County has received 5,000 doses in nasal spray form that will be given to people in high-risk groups, such as health care workers and emergency responders.

Both Sebelius and Robert Belshe, director of SLU's Center for Vaccine Development, used the press conference to reassure people that the vaccines are safe and haven't been prematurely rushed to the market.

"One of the things that has happened with H1N1 is that, without jeopardizing any of the safety steps, the vaccine is becoming available far more quickly than anyone could have anticipated," Sebelius said. "The virus wasn't even identified until early April, and here we are in early October and we have the vaccine being delivered."

Because the nasal spray, called FluMist, contains a live albeit weakened H1N1 virus, it's available only to healthy people who are between the ages of 2 and 49. People with chronic health conditions, as well as pregnant women, have to wait for the injected form of the vaccine, set to arrive here later this week.

Responding to a question about why the nasal spray arrived first if infants and pregnant women - two of the high-risk groups - can't take that form of the vaccine, Sebelius said, "We're dealing with five different manufacturers, and that's just the way it came off the production line."

Clay said that on top of the 35,000 nasal spray doses already in Missouri, 70,000 additional vaccine doses should arrive to the state later this week, including 40,000 doses in shot form. By Oct. 16, he said, manufacturers are expected to start shipping 295,000 vaccine doses to local public health agencies and health care providers in Missouri.

The local health departments are in charge of making distribution plans. The first shipments are intended for people in the high-risk groups, including pregnant women, health care workers, young people and individuals with chronic illnesses.

The directors of the St. Louis County and St. Louis Health Departments said that once the vaccine becomes widely available (and not just intended for people in the high-risk groups), likely to be in late November or early December, they will announce mass vaccination clinics at schools and other locations.

Vaccine trials have shown that most people need only take one dose for optimum protection. The exception is children under the age of 10, who need two doses taken at separate times. Clay said he's confident that there will eventually be enough of the vaccines to go around.

"This season we'll be able to provide the 2009 H1N1 flu vaccine to anyone who wants it," he said. "We will have a significant amount of the vaccine widely available throughout the state by mid-October - and I have to tell you the truth we're going to need the supply."

Clay said doctor visits for flu-like illnesses are higher in the state now than during the peak of flu season in the past several years.

Sebelius said the H1N1 virus is "presenting itself like the seasonal flu," but warned that "the regular flu also kills people." There have been 500 announced H1N1-related deaths in the United States since April, she said.

"We're seeing totally unusual flu activity," Sebelius said. "Usually in August, September and October, you'd have almost no cases of the flu. We already have millions of cases."

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