THURSDAY, July 9, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- The initial scare posed by the sudden emergence of swine flu in April may have passed, but federal officials are warning against complacency and bracing for the virus' expected return in the fall.
On Thursday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and others led an H1N1 swine flu "preparedness summit" at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. The summit comes amid reports that the H1N1 virus continues to infect people in the United States and at least 100 other countries. Infections are becoming increasingly widespread in the Southern Hemisphere, where flu season is under way.
"Scientists and public health experts forecast that the impact of H1N1 may well worsen in the fall -- when the regular flu season hits, or even earlier, when schools start to open -- which is only five or six weeks away in some cases," Sebelius said in a news release.
"The goal of the summit is to launch a national influenza campaign by bringing federal, state and local officials, emergency managers, educators and others together with the nation's public health experts to build on and tailor states' existing pandemic plans, share lessons learned and best practices during the spring and summer H1N1 wave, and discuss preparedness priorities," she added.
The H1N1 swine flu first surfaced in the United States in mid-April, and has since infected an estimated 1 million Americans. Although the virus continues to produce mild illness and patients recover fairly quickly, 170 people in the United States have died from the disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The most recent figures from the World Health Organization put the number of deaths globally at 429.
Health officials are worried that the H1N1 virus could mutate, becoming more virulent and dangerous.
The WHO last month formally declared a pandemic, triggered by the rapid spread of the H1N1 virus across North America, South America, Europe, Australia and regions beyond.
U.S. health officials have said they are considering a swine flu immunization campaign that could involve an unprecedented 600 million doses of vaccine. Still to be worked out is finding enough health-care workers to administer all those shots, and determining ways to record side effects if the vaccine is given at the same time as the seasonal flu vaccine, officials said.
The timing of the program depends on how fast a vaccine can be produced and tested. Preliminary trial vaccines are expected within several weeks, and some vaccine could be available by mid-October, Sebelius said.
The 600 million doses would dwarf the roughly 115 million doses of seasonal flu vaccine and the 150 million doses of childhood vaccines distributed each year, the Associated Press reported.
During the one-day summit, the federal officials spelled out specific ways that states and local governments can start their planning and preparation efforts. The officials also unveiled new programs and resources to help state and local governments, the medical community and all Americans prepare for the fall flu season and the return of H1N1 swine flu.
According to a Health and Human Services news release, those measures include:
- a total of $350 million in grants, to help state and local public health agencies and health-care systems ready preparedness plans.
- a new federal government Web site -- www.flu.gov. --that will be a clearinghouse of information about H1N1 swine flu and seasonal flu.
- a public service announcement campaign contest to encourage more Americans to get involved in the nation's flu preparedness efforts. The winner will receive $2,500 and the announcement will be broadcast on national television. More details are available at www.flu.gov.
"We ask the American people to become actively engaged with their own preparation and prevention," Sebelius said. "It's a responsibility we all share."
Meanwhile, federal health officials continue to monitor the H1N1 virus as it circulates in the United States -- some children are being infected at summer camps, for instance -- and 120 other countries, especially in the Southern Hemisphere where the flu season is under way.
What makes the H1N1 strain different from the typical seasonal flu is that about half of the people killed worldwide were young and previously healthy. In contrast, regular forms of the seasonal flu typically prove most lethal to the very young and the elderly.
To learn more about H1N1 swine flu, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.