A Times Editorial

A prudent strategy for fighting flu

The fast-spreading swine flu virus will seriously test the nation's public health system when children return to school and the cold season returns this fall. So a federal panel of public health experts made the right call in recommending that those most vulnerable to the new H1N1 virus be the first ones vaccinated. The anticipated vaccine supply will serve barely half the nation's at-risk population. It makes sense to prioritize. But officials also need to ensure that no vaccines are needlessly held back.

A committee of medical and public health experts advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended a rationing plan Wednesday should the federal government — as expected — have too few doses of the vaccine by October. Five key populations would have priority: pregnant women, children and young adults up to 25 years, infants and their caretakers, health care and emergency workers and adults with chronic health disorders or compromised immune systems.

Officials have found these groups especially vulnerable to the virus. Because infants under 6 months cannot be vaccinated directly, the strategy is to keep their caretakers from spreading the virus to them. The virus has disproportionately hit pregnant women and young adults. So far it has largely spared people 65 and older. Health officials said older people have a high risk to seasonal influenza, but they may have added immunity to swine flu from previous exposure to a related virus. As of last week, the United States had 44,000 confirmed cases of the virus and 302 deaths.

Targeting those at the highest risk is only practical given that the nation lacks enough vaccine to treat the entire population. The targeted group numbers 160 million people. Yet officials expect only 120 million doses of swine flu vaccine to be available by October — and most people will need two doses. In the case of a severe shortage, the CDC panel has narrowed the target list even further to focus on children.

Officials said the policy will evolve as vaccine supply and the virus' spread become clearer in the coming months. That flexibility should ensure that vaccine gets to communities where it is needed. It should also prevent vaccine from needlessly sitting on the shelf. The federal government and the states must communicate between themselves and with the public so the general population can protect itself at the earliest opportunity. The panel offered a responsible plan for dealing with the scarcity of vaccine in this crisis. Federal and state health officials, in carrying out their response, should show the same levelheadedness.

A prudent strategy for fighting flu 07/30/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 30, 2009 7:31pm]

    

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