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Get Your Vaccine for Seasonal Flu, Experts Urge

The regular winter scourge poses a potential threat, just like swine flu

THURSDAY, Sept 10 (HealthDay News) -- Swine flu may be grabbing all the headlines, but seasonal flu poses a real threat this fall, too.

And the time to act is now, by getting a seasonal flu shot. Then follow it up with an H1N1 swine flu vaccine when the first shipments arrive in mid-October.

That was the message Thursday from U.S. health officials, who noted that seasonal flu puts more than 200,000 Americans in the hospital each year and causes an estimated 36,000 deaths.

"This is a serious disease," Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said during a morning press conference. "When it comes to strains of the flu, getting vaccinated -- we know -- is the best line of defense."

About 116 million doses of seasonal flu vaccine will be on hand this year, Sebelius said. The vaccine is available now, and more doses will arrive in the coming weeks, she said.

People should also plan to get vaccinated for the H1N1 swine flu when that vaccine becomes available. As of now, it looks like the H1N1 vaccine will consist of two shots, given three weeks apart.

Sebelius said that, because the swine flu wasn't identified until April, there wasn't enough time to include the H1N1 vaccine in this year's seasonal flu shot.

Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the coming flu season will be different than any in recent memory, given the presence of both the seasonal and swine flu strains. At the moment, the H1N1 swine flu strain is far more prevalent in North America than the seasonal strain.

"We are in uncharted territory," Frieden said. "Flu season never really ended, or it started early, whichever way you look at it."

Uncharacteristically, flu infections continued during the summer, Frieden explained. And cases are already increasing in some parts of the country, particularly the Southeast, where many schools reopened last month.

"In some areas, we are now seeing as much flu in early September as we would usually see at the peak of flu season later in the year," he said.

Seasonal flu vaccine is recommended for everyone 50 and older; for children between 6 months and 18 years of age; for people with underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, heart or lung disease; for people with compromised immune systems, such as those on chemotherapy, and for pregnant women, Frieden said.

In addition to flu shots, people 65 and older and anyone over 2 years of age with a chronic illness should also get vaccinated against pneumococcal disease, which can lead to severe illness, including bacterial pneumonia, bloodstream infection and meningitis. "It reduces the risk of serious illness from a common bacteria," Frieden said.

The target groups for the swine flu vaccine include pregnant women; parents and caregivers of children less than 6 months old; people between 6 months of age and 24 years; health-care workers, and people 25 to 64 years old who have underlying health problems, such as asthma and diabetes.

Frieden said health-care workers should be vaccinated for both seasonal flu and swine flu to protect themselves and the people they care for. Typically, only about 40 percent of health-care workers get vaccinated, he noted.

Some states, such as New York and California, have made it mandatory for health-care workers to get seasonal flu shots, Dr. Gregory A. Poland said during the press conference. He's director of the Mayo Clinic's Vaccine Research Group and chairman of the American College of Physicians' Adult Immunization Advisory Board.

"This, I believe, should be a priority for all health-care institutions who take patient safety seriously," Poland said. "Ask your hospital or your clinic, your doctor or your nurse, if they've gotten flu vaccine. And if they haven't, ask them why not," he said.

In the Sept. 11 issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, researchers reported on two possible cases of swine flu resistance to the antiviral drug Tamiflu. Two teenage girls were given the drug, which is effective against swine flu, before they became ill.

Although resistance to Tamiflu is rare, overuse of the drug can cause the swine flu virus to become resistant to it. To prevent such resistance, the CDC recommends antivirals only for people at high risk for complications from the swine flu and for those hospitalized with the flu.

More information

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SOURCES: Sept. 10, 2009, teleconference with Kathleen Sebelius, secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Thomas R. Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Gregory A. Poland, M.D., director, Mayo Vaccine Research Group, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., and chairman, Adult Immunization Advisory Board, American College of Physicians; Sept. 11, 2009, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report

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