Has The Swine Flu Pandemic Peaked?

The World Health Organization meets next Tuesday to decide if the H1N1 flu pandemic has officially peaked. Cases of pandemic flu have been decreasing. However, a third wave of the flu had been predicted. Thursday the WHO decided to include the pandemic virus in next fall's seasonal flu vaccine.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

We turn now to the World Health Organization, which is assessing the threat of the flu, both this winter and next. Today, the WHO made its recommendation for what goes into the next winter's flu vaccine for the Northern Hemisphere.

Next week, it will meet consider whether the swine flu pandemic has peaked. The number of cases has been decreasing. Joining me from Boston is NPR health and science correspondent Richard Knox.

Richard, first of all, what can we say about the pandemic? How bad was it?

RICHARD KNOX: Not as bad as they thought it might be. There's some new estimates from the CDC that tell an interesting story about what we've just been through.

About 57 million Americans got this new H1N1 flu between last April and January. And that's really probably about as many as get the flu in a severe flu season - a regular one, not a pandemic season. Deaths, this is where there's a big difference. Considerably fewer deaths than usual, around 12,000 so far, and thats less than half of what you would normally see in a regular flu season. The striking thing this time around is really who got sick, or who got really sick, and who died.

Normally, people over 65 are the majority of flu hospitalizations and deaths. This year its just really the opposite; nine out of 10 hospitalizations and nine out of 10 deaths have been among those under 65, and most notably young adults and children.

WERTHEIMER: Health officials have warned that there might be a third wave. What is a third wave? Do they still think its going to happen?

KNOX: A third wave would be another surge. We had one - first wave was last April through June. Second wave was in the fall, September through December. And they thought there might be a third one this spring, late winter, spring, because thats happened before in pandemics. But so far its not happening and CDC and the World Health Organization say the chances of a third wave are going down.

WERTHEIMER: Now, there was a huge campaign to get Americans vaccinated against both seasonal flu and the pandemic H1N1. Did that work?

KNOX: Not as much as was hoped. Theres one figure that I think tells the story. The U.S. government ordered enough of the brand new vaccine, the H1N1 vaccine, for three out of every five Americans, 60 percent. But really only about 25 percent of Americans got vaccinated. So thats disappointing.

Despite the big media blitz, the percentage of high-risk people who were told over and over again you need to get vaccinated, the percentage of those who did was really no higher than usual. Same with health care workers. A big part of the problem was that most of the vaccine didnt arrive until after the peak was passed in mid-October, but clearly Americans werent convinced that the pandemic was a big threat.

WERTHEIMER: Now theyre working on a new recipe for the next vaccine. Is that going to be based on H1N1?

KNOX: Yes, the new H1N1, which emerged last spring, is certainly going to be a major component of next falls vaccine. Thats because its still circulating around the world. Its crowded out everything else - over the past months. It could compete really well, and so therefore we can expect it to come back.

WERTHEIMER: If they do decide the pandemic is over, are we back to normal? What would normal look like?

KNOX: Theres going to be a new normal. This is what happens with pandemics. The pandemic kind of comes along, its a brand new virus and it resets the clock, really. Typically what happens is that this new H1N1 will be with us for a long time to come, years and years to come, and gradually it will change, and gradually the population will get exposed to it.

Next fall, I think is going to be not easy to predict whether were going to have the same people, thats to say young adults and children, vulnerable to the flu next fall as were this year. Clearly theres a lot of them that have already been exposed. Fifty-seven million Americans have gotten it, many of them young.

So theyre going to be okay. A lot of them have gotten vaccinated, theyll be okay. More than a third of the U.S. population probably is already immune. So we might expect something a little less severe, but theres still going to be an awful lot of Americans who will be vulnerable and many of them will be younger.

WERTHEIMER: NPRs health and science correspondent Richard Knox. Thanks very much.

KNOX: Youre welcome.

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