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Obama Declares Swine Flu a National Emergency

Action allows hospitals to better handle large numbers of patients as outbreak spreads

SATURDAY, Oct. 24 (HealthDay News) -- President Barack Obama has declared the H1N1 swine flu a national emergency.

His proclamation, signed Friday night and released by the White House Saturday morning, will allow hospitals and doctors' offices to get legal waivers of federal rules so they can handle large numbers of sick people as the outbreak spreads.

"The H1N1 is moving rapidly, as expected. By the time regions or health-care systems recognize they are becoming overburdened, they need to implement disaster plans quickly," White House spokesman Reid Cherlin said Saturday, according to the Washington Post.

The waivers, which will be issued by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, still require individual requests by the hospitals, Cherlin noted.

The goal, according to the Associated Press, is to remove bureaucratic roadblocks and make it easier for sick people to seek treatment and for medical personnel to provide it immediately. That could mean fewer hurdles involving Medicare, Medicaid or health privacy regulations, the AP added.

The H1N1 swine flu is now widespread in 46 states, and there have been 1,000 laboratory-confirmed deaths since April, according to the latest estimates released Friday by U.S. health officials.

Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a news conference Friday, "We have already had millions of cases of pandemic influenza in the United States, and the numbers continue to increase."

At the same time, he said, production delays continue to hamper distribution of the H1N1 swine flu vaccine.

The vaccine is growing more slowly in egg-based cultures than manufacturers had anticipated, resulting in fewer available doses at this time, Frieden explained.

As of Friday, there were 16.1 million doses on hand nationwide, up from 14.1 on Wednesday, Frieden said. And there will be far fewer than the 40 million doses originally planned for the end of October, he added.

"Vaccine availability is increasing steadily, but far too slowly," Frieden said. "It's frustrating to all of us. We are nowhere near where we thought we would be by now. We are not near where the vaccine manufacturers predicted we would be."

The vaccine that is available comes in both nasal mist and injectable forms. The first doses were only the nasal spray, called FluMist, designed for healthy people 2 to 49 years of age. But now, more than half the doses are injectable, he said.

While children continue to be particularly vulnerable to the disease, Freiden said, "we are seeing it increasingly affect young adults as well as children. We are still not seeing significant numbers of cases among the elderly, and that's characteristic of this virus."

That's also a marked difference from run-of-the-mill seasonal flu, which typically poses a much bigger threat to the elderly.

There is encouraging news, Frieden said. The genetic makeup of the H1N1 virus hasn't changed, meaning the swine flu vaccine and the antiviral drug Tamiflu are a good match.

Frieden said the H1N1 flu would probably occur in waves, but "we can't predict how high, how far or long the wave will go, or when the next will come."

"We are now in the second wave of pandemic influenza and whether this will continue through the fall into the winter, whether it will go away and come back in traditional flu season, only time will tell," he said.

More information

To learn more about the H1N1 swine flu, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

SOURCES: John Treanor, M.D., professor, medicine, and chief, infectious diseases division, University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, N.Y.; Oct. 23, 2009, news release, U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Oct. 23, 2009, teleconference with Thomas R. Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Washington Post; Associated Press

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