Influenza is widespread in most of the United States, with the incidence continuing to increase in some states and to decline very slightly in others, the director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday. The infections are "overwhelmingly" pandemic H1N1 influenza, commonly known as swine flu.
The flu season generally lasts well into May, so many months of uncertainties lie ahead, said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, speaking at a morning news conference.
Shipments of intranasal swine flu vaccines to providers have begun, and vaccinations began Monday in several states, with a priority for healthcare providers and young children. About 2.4 million doses of the intranasal vaccine FluMist are now available, and states have already ordered 2.2 million doses, Frieden said. Next week, an injectable vaccine will also become available.
So far, vaccine "demand is outstripping supply, but we expect that fairly soon supply will be outstripping demand," Frieden said. Over the next two to three weeks, tens of millions of additional doses will become available.
There have already been some mismatches between supply and demand, Frieden said. "The first couple of weeks are going to be a bit bumpy as we get the supply chain worked out. What we are seeing now is the tap beginning to flow."
Frieden said the public has three major concerns about vaccination, "despite the clear message that vaccine is the best tool to protect against the flu":
* First, he said, many people believe the flu is a mild illness. It is not. "It can make you pretty sick, knock you out for a day or two or three," Frieden said. It can even put people in the hospital or kill them. In a typical flu season, about 35,000 Americans die from complications.
* Second, some people believe that the vaccine is not safe, that corners have been cut in its production, and that it is a new, experimental vaccine. "In fact, none of that is the case," Frieden said. "It is made the same way the flu vaccine is made each year, in the same facilities and by the same companies." And that seasonal vaccine, he added, has "been used safely in hundreds of millions of people. My children will get it [the swine flu vaccine], other public health and societal leaders will get it and have their families get it."
* Third is the concern that the vaccine is arriving too late to do much good. "It's too soon to say it is too late," Frieden said, because no one knows what is going to happen for the rest of the flu season. Even if, say, 5% of the population has contracted swine flu, that still leaves 95% vulnerable. "We don't know what the long flu season is going to hold. We have not had a flu season like this in 50 years" -- since the 1957 Asian flu pandemic that killed 70,000 Americans and 2 million people worldwide.