JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
We're going to talk more now about vaccines. For many parents with kids heading back to school, the requirements and the risks can be baffling. This year, there's the added concern with the expected roll out of a new vaccine for the H1N1 virus.
Joining me now to sort things out is Doctor Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He's also a co-author of "Vaccines: What You Should Know." Doctor Offit joins us on the phone from Philadelphia. Welcome.
Dr. PAUL OFFIT (Chief of Infectious Diseases, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia): Hi, Jennifer.
LUDDEN: We just heard from WAMU's Kavitha Cardoza that school officials here in D.C. have decided to require girls 13 and older be vaccinated for HPV, the human papillomavirus that can cause cervical cancer. Do you think this is something that should be in place nationwide?
Dr. OFFIT: Well, it's certainly a vaccine that's of tremendous benefit. I mean, it can prevent the only known cause of cervical cancer and it's safe. So I mean it's - certainly, you would like to believe that everybody would get it anyway once they knew that. But sometimes, you know, mandates are the best way to ensure that, you know, that good public health measures are used.
LUDDEN: Well, some are cautioning, some watchdog groups say, well, it hasn't really been around that long. How do we know it's safe?
Dr. OFFIT: Well, it's been licensed since 2006. It was tested for probably a decade and a half before that. I mean, it's been now in tens of thousands of people for several years, for about seven, eight years. That's pretty good. I mean, I think, you know, we certainly have more information about this vaccine than we do for any drug that gets licensed or used.
So I think the question is when do you know enough, not when do you know everything. And I think, you know, it's certainly known that this virus causes cervical cancer. It's certainly known that this vaccine can prevent it. Cervical cancer causes 10,000 cases a year in the United States and several thousand deaths. Here's a way to prevent it. I think it's an easy call.
LUDDEN: There's also concern this year about the threat of the H1N1 virus known as swine flu. Children are at a particular risk. What does this mean for schools?
Dr. OFFIT: When we've had pandemics and, you know, usually we average about three pandemics a century, they usually start around September. And that's because the reservoir for that infection is schools. And when children congregate in September is when you first start to see those pandemics taking off.
So this would definitely be of benefit for school children, and there's not a vaccine yet, and we still have to sort of look at the date and make sure that the vaccine is safe and effective. But it certainly looks like we're going to have a vaccine in place which can prevent a lot of suffering and some death in this country.
LUDDEN: But not all. I mean, I've heard October is when the vaccine is coming, but school obviously is already starting in many places.
Dr. OFFIT: Right. I think the technology is well worn. We've been using this same technology to make flu vaccines since the 1940s, so I don't think one needs to worry from that standpoint. I think we'll see what the data show, but I think the data will show that the vaccines are immunogenic and safe, and we'll be able to use it comfortably, hopefully by mid-October.
LUDDEN: I've seen mention that this could be the largest immunization program since the polio vaccine, which went to a hundred million Americans in the '60s. I mean, do you have a sense of the scope expected for H1N1?
Dr. OFFIT: Well, it's probably going to be limited by the number of doses that are available. I think the first roll out would include easily 40 million Americans. But, you know, when you look back actually the last pandemic and probably the only pandemic for which we made vaccine in advance that's coming into the United States was in 1957. And we made that vaccine in five months and immunized about 40 million Americans. I think we would be able to accomplish at least that this time.
LUDDEN: So you think the public health care system is up to the task?
Dr. OFFIT: They definitely are up to it. I - you know, if you look at what happened, I think, you know, with the fear about the H5N1 virus, the so called bird flu virus, I mean, the Bush administration put in place an infrastructure to make a lot of vaccine quickly. And so, I think now we have our first test to see whether or not we can do it, but I'm optimistic that we can.
LUDDEN: Dr. Paul Offit is the chief of infectious diseases at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and a professor of vaccinology and pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Thank you very much for joining us.
Dr. OFFIT: Thank you, Jennifer.
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