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Many see H1N1 as waning

But US officials warn swine flu remains a risk

Nurse Lana Peta gave swine flu nasal mist to Maddie Foley, 5, in Wellesley last November as Maddie’s mother, Lisa, looks on. Nurse Lana Peta gave swine flu nasal mist to Maddie Foley, 5, in Wellesley last November as Maddie’s mother, Lisa, looks on. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Elizabeth Cooney and Stephen Smith
Globe Correspondent | Globe Staff / February 6, 2010

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Almost half of Americans believe the global swine flu epidemic is over, according to a Harvard survey released yesterday that found children were more likely to be inoculated than adults. But federal health officials cautioned that the H1N1 virus that causes swine flu is still circulating.

The Harvard School of Public Health poll, which reached 1,419 US adults by telephone from Jan. 20 to Jan. 24, discovered that nearly three-fourths of those surveyed now believe there is enough vaccine available, after earlier shortages.

About 40 percent of parents said their children had been vaccinated, while 13 percent said they intended to have their youngsters immunized against the H1N1 virus by the end of February. Only 21 percent of adults surveyed said they had gotten the swine flu shot or nasal vaccine, although 16 percent said they hope to be vaccinated by the end of this month.

“Many parents heeded the public health message to vaccinate their children against this virus, which hit young people unexpectedly hard,’’ Robert J. Blendon, director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program, said in a statement released with the survey. “But there remains a steady core of adults who, regardless of messaging and other efforts, has chosen not to get the H1N1 vaccine. This group’s set of attitudes has proven very difficult for public health officials to change.’’

Federal health authorities reported yesterday that swine flu continues to circulate, albeit at a lower level than last fall’s peak levels.

Last week, 1.9 percent of visits to US physician offices and clinics were linked to influenza, below the average of 2.3 percent for this time of year during the past three flu seasons. Almost all those flu cases were caused by the H1N1 virus.

“We don’t seem to be seeing the disappearance of this virus,’’ Dr. Anne Schuchat, a flu specialist of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in a telephone briefing for reporters. “The past several weeks, there’s really been steady transmission, rather than a disappearance.’’

In Massachusetts, where flu accounted for up to 9 percent of medical office visits in the fall, the viral disease accounted for barely 1 percent of visits last week.

Even as the swine flu epidemic appears to be waning, the number of deaths traced to pneumonia and influenza remained above typical levels for this time of year, creating a conundrum for disease trackers. Schuchat said investigators are “trying to understand whether those deaths we’re hearing about are caused by influenza or caused by other infectious agents.’’ Some of the pneumonia deaths, for example, could have been ignited by cold viruses or other germs before evolving into pneumonia.

Nationally, nine children succumbed to flu last week - with at least eight of those deaths attributed to H1N1. No flu deaths were reported last week in Massachusetts; since swine flu emerged in the state in late April, four children and 27 adults have died from the viral illness.

The Harvard swine flu survey found that people who chose not to get the vaccine for themselves or their children said their decision was influenced by a belief that the disease was not as serious as once thought, concerns about safety, or confidence that they wouldn’t catch the virus.

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