WASHINGTON - The United States is planning for a vaccination campaign against the new H1N1 flu that could move into schools and community centers, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said on Thursday.
Sebelius led off a summit of state and territorial officials to tell them what the federal government plans to do if the new swine flu virus continues its spread. It has killed at least 429 people globally and caused the first 21st century pandemic.
U.S. officials say at least 1 million people in the United States have been infected, most with a mild to moderate case.
Although federal health officials lead an annual seasonal influenza vaccination campaign, this one is likely to be different, Sebelius said in an interview.
The new flu appears to hit older children and young adults harder, in contrast to seasonal viruses that disproportionately afflict the old.
We are likely to have a different target population, Sebelius said. We will be seeking partnerships with schools potentially and other vaccination sites.
Time will have to be spent writing consent forms so parents are not blindsided when schools ask to vaccinate their children, Sebelius said.
Time is short.
Clearly this will drill down to states and, frankly, local health departments, she said. We have got to push supplies out. We have got to push antivirals out.
No one knows if the H1N1 virus will stay mild, or if it will change slightly as it circulates, coming back in the northern hemisphere's autumn months in a more virulent form.
Hospitals must prepare their so-called surge capacity -- making room to take in dozens or even hundreds of sick people at once -- at a time when most hospitals are already full with day-to-day sicknesses and emergencies, Sebelius said.
Health officials already have said it is likely a vaccine against H1N1 will be offered separately from the annual seasonal flu vaccine, which is a cocktail of three different flu viruses. It is also likely to be given as two doses -- another logistical complication.
I think that part of the challenge is how to communicate effectively with folks to be prepared without scaring people to death, Sebelius said. It has to be a balance between complacency and preparation.
She said HHS would start an advertising campaign to help educate people about the virus. To help stir up interest, the agency was offering a contest for the best unpaid advertisement for television and radio, called a public service announcement or PSA. The winning PSA will receive $2,500 in cash and will appear on national television, HHS said.
Sebelius told the summit, held at the National Institutes of Health campus outside Washington, that state and local officials also have to prepare to close schools if needed.
Depending on the severity of the outbreak, community mitigation could involve more systematic means of social distancing, including limits on large gatherings and, if necessary and appropriate, temporary school or workplace closures, she said in remarks prepared for the summit.
Late in April, President Barack Obama asked Congress for $1.5 billion to pay for swine flu measures.
Companies already are working on an H1N1 swine flu vaccine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said has scheduled a July 23 advisory panel meeting to discuss clinical trials of the vaccines against the H1N1 influenza virus.
Companies working on an H1N1 vaccine include Sanofi-Aventis, Novartis AG, Baxter International Inc, GlaxoSmithKline and Solvay.
(Editing by Bill Trott)