Parents Wait As More Swine Flu Vaccine Is Produced

More than 40 children have died over the last two months. Many parents looking for the vaccine have had trouble finding it, while others have concerns about the vaccine's safety. Dr. Carol Baker, a pediatrician who chairs the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's advisory committee, talks with Renee Montagne, about children and the swine flu.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Swine flu is already widespread across the country, and among those considered most at risk are children. More than 40 have died over the last two months. Many parents looking for the vaccine have had trouble finding it; not every doctor has it. Others still have concerns about the vaccine's safety. To talk through these questions, we reached Dr. Carol Baker. She's a pediatrician who chairs the CDC's advisory committee on immunization practices. Welcome to the program.

Dr. CAROL BAKER (Pediatrician, Advisory Committee, CDC): Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Let's look at a little bit of background here. How is it that the swine flu can be fatal in some children and relatively harmless in others?

Dr. BAKER: We don't really know that. The major target for this novel virus has been those with underlying conditions. And so the most common underlying condition that has hospitalized young people, so far, with the virus - have been those with asthma, a relatively controllable condition but one which puts them at excess risk of complications.

MONTAGNE: Now, there have been delays in producing the swine flu vaccine. What does that mean for availability over the next few weeks, considering that some doctors can't even offer it yet?

Dr. BAKER: Well, this is a problem, and one of the reasons for the new delay in the number of doses that will be delivered in October - we thought it would be 160 million doses; it's going to be more like 28 to 30 million doses - is the way we make the vaccine. We grow the virus in eggs. And so one of the disappointments with this novel H1N1 is it just didn't grow as quickly as it might have.

MONTAGNE: Now, those numbers are a little startling, if I understood you right. A hundred and sixty million were expected - doses of the vaccine - 30 million actually produced. Does that mean that millions more people - and I'm thinking here children, especially - will get the swine flu before they can get vaccinated?

Dr. BAKER: Well, when I said 30 million, I meant in the month of October. There will continue to be vaccine production. The problem is that, as you said in your introduction, the virus is widespread. So, we're in the middle of the epidemic as we're waiting for a vaccine, and that's not the optimal situation.

MONTAGNE: Was this vaccine, in any respect, rushed to the market? Did it have appropriate testing?

Dr. BAKER: Well, every year in our seasonal vaccine, we may need to change the virus because we want to match what's actually causing disease. So, this is a new virus. It's made exactly the same way, and it grows as fast as it will grow, so there's no way to rush the manufacturing. What was rushed was the bureaucracy.

So, the federal government did everything possible to get this vaccine produced as quickly as possible. But there have been tests so far, and it's been as safe as the seasonal vaccine right now. So, I would be concerned about the disease caused by H1N1, not by the vaccine.

MONTAGNE: Well, there is also concern among parents about a preservative that was used in the swine flu vaccine - also used in the seasonal flu vaccine. And it's a compound derived from mercury that some believe is linked to autism. Is that concern about a link reasonable?

Dr. BAKER: It is not. There've been more - the science says that there's no link between autism and the preservative Thiomersal. But remember that there are two ways that parents who are truly concerned can have an option.

The first is if your child is 2 years of age or more and doesn't have asthma or any underlying conditions - it's just a healthy child - you can have the nasal spray vaccine, which contains no preservative. This is a live, weakened virus that's very effective. The second option for parents is preservative-free vaccine for very young children, based on availability - and that's the problem. There's not enough, sometimes, for every parent who wants something. But they shouldn't be afraid of preservatives.

MONTAGNE: Now, we've talked about this before on our program, but it's worth asking again: Should parents be thinking about giving their children both the swine flu vaccine and the regular seasonal flu vaccine?

Dr. BAKER: Absolutely. The seasonal flu vaccine has been delayed in production. But remember, swine flu is here; seasonal isn't. We don't expect seasonal until November or December. It typically peaks in February. We have disease in March and April. So, there's plenty of time to be protected against seasonal.

The problem with the H1N1 is that nobody has immunity from it, and our vaccine is not here yet in a supply great enough to protect all our children. So, you should get both.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

Dr. BAKER: You're welcome. My pleasure.

MONTAGNE: Dr. Carol Baker is chair of the CDC's advisory committee on immunization practices, and also executive director of the Texas Children's Center for Vaccine Awareness and Research.

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MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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