CBS News told 60 Minutes viewers Sunday night that H1N1 vaccine production is falling short of volume projections. This past summer the Obama administration announced that it expected to have 120 million vaccines ready by fall. That number was later revised down to 40 million doses. Far fewer have been available, however. Only 17 million doses have been delivered to date, according to the 60 Minutes segment.
Experts cite the slow production cycle as a big part of the problem. It seems the H1N1 virus, which is grown in eggs, doesn’t grow as quickly as regular flu viruses. But manufacturers have surmounted that challenge and production is accelerating. One of the major obstacles is dispensation.
Some 10,000 health care workers were laid off in the 2008-2009 recession, limiting the ability of the government to get the vaccine to the public. “While the pipeline is now beginning to flow – and we’ll see more vaccine over the next six to 12 weeks – the faucet where that pipeline then puts that vaccine into the community is largely rusted shut. We don’t have a system in this right now for delivering vaccines to adults,” commented Michael Osterholm, a top infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota. “We’ve got states of multi-million people that have 25 or 30 people that are now available or possibly able to give vaccines,” he told 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley.
The other major obstacle is public skepticism and concern for the safety. Political pundits are quick to criticize the vaccine program as unsafe based on the short development and testing cycle. Many consumers recall the vaccine program of 1976 and have fears of potential side effects that may not have surfaced during the testing phase. In the 1976 instance, about 400 people out of the 40 million that were vaccinated developed ‘Guillain-Barre’ Syndrome, a paralysis which “starts at your toes and can work its way up where your nervous system is affected. And some people died from that,” Dr. Bruce Gellin, the director of the federal vaccine program, told Pelley. Gellin told Pelley that although the government still does not know what went wrong in 1976, it has never happened since and the H1N1 vaccine is manufactured using the same development process that the government uses every year for the seasonal flu vaccine. Except for the swine flu vaccine used in 1976, no other flu vaccines have been clearly linked to GBS, according to the CDC. “[The H1N1 vaccine is] as safe as what people take every year,” Gellin said. Gellin told 60 Minutes viewers he has received fewer than 200 reports of side effects after 10 million doses, and that these are mostly muscle aches, stomach aches and sore arms.
Osterholm likens the H1N1 vaccine to wearing a seatbelt. His point is that we don’t have automobile accidents every day but we always wear our seatbelts because IF we should happen to be in an accident, we’d certainly be glad we were wearing seatbelts to protect us.
The number of U.S. cases of flu reported for this flu season, which started October 5th (week 40) are much higher than historic levels. This CDC chart documents the rapid acceleration in diagnoses over a very short period of time.
All regions of the country are reporting elevated H1N1 diagnoses. As far as hospitalization rates, according to the CDC 15 – 24% of H1N1 patients are hospitalized, depending on the age group. The only age groups with lower rates of hospitalization are adults 19 – 24 (9%) and adults 65+ (7%). The CDC also reports that the highest percentage of fatalities from H1N1 are in adults 25 – 49 and 50 – 64 years of age, each with 32% of cases ending in death.
Obama declared the pandemic a national emergency two weeks ago. Globally, millions have been infected and there are over 5,000 documented deaths and likely many more, according to Reuters. Sales of Clorox and sanitizing gels have soared as people scramble to disinfect their immediate surroundings from potential H1N1 germs.