Swine Flu Dominated 2009 Health News

One of the biggest news stories of this year was about a new flu virus. People around the globe became sick with swine flu. On June 11, the World Health Organization declared the flu a pandemic. The virus nearly disappeared over the summer, but a second wave returned in the fall. Health officials caution there could be a third wave of the flu in 2010.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

One of the biggest stories this year was about something that threatened all of us, a new flu virus.

Unidentified Woman: An outpouring of emotion in Queens tonight for a...

Unidentified Man #1: Fears about swine flu now reaching a crescendo, and tonight, more schools have been shut down.

Unidentified Man #2: ABC estimates nearly 4,000 Americans have died.

Unidentified Man #3: Peter, this is also causing a run on some hospital emergency rooms.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Joanne Silberner has this report on a virus the world had never seen before.

JOANNE SILBERNER: In mid-April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received samples of a virus from two sick children in California. Scientists compared it to a virus they knew had been circulating in Mexico since March. On April 24, acting CDC director Richard Besser held a press conference.

Dr. RICHARD BESSER (Acting Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): I think that you'd be safe in saying that from everything we know to date, the virus appears to be the same.

SILBERNER: That was big news. In Mexico, the virus was linked to serious illnesses, and fear of the flu shut down Mexico City. Here's how NPR's Jason Beaubien described it.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Today, parts of the city looked like ghost towns. Streets that were usually packed with honking taxis had only a few cars in them, professional soccer matches took place in empty stadiums�

SILBERNER: And people stayed home and listened to mass on the radio. Just a week later, 433 schools in 17 states in this country were closed. That meant nearly a quarter of a million kids out of school. Here's health official Sandra Parker in Fort Worth.

Dr. SANDRA PARKER (Medical Director, Tarrant County Health Department): We have recommended that they stay at home. We don't think that they should be involved in any group activities outside of the school. So, that would include things like the mall, going to the movie theaters.

SILBERNER: Throughout May, the World Health Organization watched the virus spread around the world. Then on June 11th, WHO Director Margaret Chan made a proclamation.

Ms. MARGARET CHEN (Director, WHO): The scientific criteria for an influenza pandemic have been met. The world is now at the start of the 2009 influenza pandemic.

SILBERNER: Over time though, the situation calmed down some. As more people got sick, it became clear that the virus looked deadlier in Mexico because milder cases weren't being counted. And as usually happens with flu, the virus nearly disappeared over the summer. With vaccine experts expecting a second wave, come fall, vaccine was needed. Government officials and manufacturers got together and vaccine tests on people began in early August. The vaccine was available in record time on October 14th, but just two days later, the CDC's Ann Shucket announced a glitch.

ANN SHUCKET: Some of the manufacturers have let us know that the production of vaccine is likely to be a bit delayed.

SILBERNER: The delay caused a public outcry. For Aaron Kuernan(ph), who was at greater risk because she was pregnant, it meant asking her obstetrician for a vaccine every week, only to hear there was none on hand.

Ms. AARON KUERNAN: And of course, I'm on the germy, New York City subway and people are coughing all around me, and I'm reading this New York Times story about this woman who had something like seven collapsed lungs and almost died from the swine - getting the swine flu while she was pregnant. Oh, my God, like all I did was stress me out about the fact that I still can't find this vaccine.

SILBERNER: If there was a misstep by government officials, this was it. In July, they had predicted there could be as many as 160 million doses by October, but the virus proved difficult to produce, and by the end of October there were only 27 million doses. Medical historian, Howard Markel of the University of Michigan, says there's a lesson learned here.

Dr. HOWARD MARKEL (Medical Historian, University of Michigan): When you're talking about making hundreds of millions of doses, you have to realize that it's not so easy to do that. Not so easy to grow all that vaccine, let alone to distribute it and get it in people's arms.

SILBERNER: But overall, Markel gives officials high grades for letting the public know what they knew when they knew it, alerting them to changes, and not over or under-hyping the situation. The number of infections peaked towards the end of October and is going down now, but there could be a third wave in early 2010. Tom Frieden, head of the CDC, says what's needed now is�

Dr. TOM FRIEDEN (M.D., M.P.H., Director CDC): Perseverance. People are tired. They think it must be over. There are not many cases around, but we don't know what the rest of the season will hold.

SILBERNER: The latest tally as of mid November: 47 million Americans have gotten sick from the H1N1 virus, 213,000 have been hospitalized, about 10,000 have died. As of the last week, about 93 million doses of vaccine had been shipped.

Joanne Silberner, NPR News, Atlanta.

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