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Those at risk get first swine flu shots

Many may wait until November

By Lauran Neergaard
Associated Press / October 6, 2009

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WASHINGTON - Swine flu vaccinations began yesterday with nasal spraying of health care workers in Indiana, Illinois, and Tennessee - it just tickled, shrugged one - as the government opened a massive effort to immunize over half the nation in a few months.

But don’t try to line up an appointment yet: Only as many as 7 million doses of vaccine are expected by week’s end. Divided up, that makes for such small initial shipments that most states are reserving early vaccine for doctors and other front-line health workers who already are being sneezed on by flu sufferers.

“I needed that protection,’’ said Dr. John Eshun, a gastroenterologist who was among the first in line for vaccine at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis. More than 5,500 children with flulike illness have sought emergency care at that hospital since Aug. 1.

In Indianapolis, health workers made jokes as they waited to have FluMist - the nasal-spray vaccine that, packed in white coolers, was the first shipped - squirted into each nostril while TV cameras rolled.

“It’s manufactured the same way as the seasonal flu vaccine, and I never get the flu,’’ said Jennifer McFarland, 30, an Indianapolis paramedic who swears by her annual vaccination and this year will need two - one to protect against swine flu and the other to protect against regular winter flu.

Vaccinations against swine flu - what scientists call the 2009 H1N1 strain - won’t gear up in earnest until mid-October, when at least 40 million doses will have rolled out, with more coming each week. Even then, first doses are supposed to be for the people at highest risk.

Only as shipments start arriving will doctors, clinics, school vaccination programs, and drugstores get word that their doses are coming, and how much. Each state health department will decide that.

In the meantime, doctor’s offices are being flooded with phone calls about the vaccine. They are still trying to determine how to adapt their schedules and staffing to administer the doses quickly.

“Take a deep breath, be patient, wait a couple of days, make another phone call and cut everyone a little slack because it’s a little hectic out there, folks,’’ said Dr. William Schaffner, a flu vaccine specialist at Vanderbilt University.

Recipients are being given “vaccination record’’ cards to help keep track of which vaccine they have been given. Seasonal vaccine is widely available, but the lower-risk general public may not get access to the swine flu vaccine until November.

H1N1 is already causing illness in nearly every state. That means getting vaccine to the people at highest risk is a race.

People given priority include pregnant women, those 6 months through 24 years, people younger than 64 who have conditions such as asthma or diabetes that increase the risk of complications from flu, health workers, and caregivers for newborns.

Most people will need one dose each of the swine flu vaccine and the regular winter flu vaccine. But health authorities believe children under 10 will need two doses of the swine flu vaccine, about three weeks apart. And some very young children getting their first regular flu vaccination will need two doses of it, for a total a four inoculations.

The Food and Drug Administration is assuring the public that the vaccine in safe.

The H1N1 vaccine is made in the same way as the regular winter flu vaccine, which is used with a very few minor side effects by nearly 100 million Americans a year. There’s no reason the H1N1 vaccine should react any differently, officials said, and no red flags have appeared in studies of several thousand people.