Public Health

Swine Flu, Complacency And Sleepless Nights

Federal health officials are unsettled. They're losing sleep over what swine flu might do this fall. But most Americans wonder what all the fuss is about.

swine flu virus i i

This little bug has federal officials worried. CDC hide caption

itoggle caption CDC
swine flu virus

This little bug has federal officials worried.

CDC

What keeps Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up at night? "Are we prepared if we have to surge up our ventilator capacity," he answered during a meeting with journalists at the CDC headquarters in Atlanta Monday.

Some of President Obama's top science advisers told him this month that half (or more) of the nation's mechanical ventilators may be needed by young flu victims. As many as 1.8 million Americans may be hospitalized because of the H1N1 virus. Some 300,000 patients may need intensive care, putting a strain on a limited hospital resource.

But ordinary Americans aren't staying up nights worrying about the pandemic.

Frieden's boss, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, pointed to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll that shows most Americans are not worried about swine flu. Only one in eight thinks his or her family will be affected.

"We know right now there's a lot of complacency," Sebelius told reporters at the same meeting.

Sometime in the next month Sebelius expects to push the start button on a national campaign to vaccinate more than half the population against swine flu. But she fears the effort may come too late.

At best the first doses of the new vaccine will be available in mid-October. "But we're really talking about probably Thanksgiving before we have a large number of Americans fully immunized," she said.

That's because people will need to get two doses of swine flu vaccine three weeks apart. And then it takes two weeks more for the body to produce protective levels of antibody.

"So we have some months of time when mitigation has to be the primary focus because we won't be able to count on a vaccine," she warns. Mitigation means "hands and home" —- wash your hands, stay home from work or school when you're feeling flu-ish. That'll require a lot more public buy-in than seems likely at this point.

Is there a possibility the public's right and that federal officials are over-preparing? "We won't know until we're in the middle of the flu season how serious this new flu is," Sebelius said.

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