New campaign will prod the public to take its flu medicine
Faced with about a half-million soon-to-expire doses of swine flu vaccine, Maryland health officials announced Thursday a new vaccination campaign next week with 150 free clinics statewide.
Maryland and federal officials are confronted with a predicament: Try to convince a skeptical public it's not too late to get vaccinated against the H1N1 virus, or throw away millions of doses if they aren't used before they expire.
Of the state's 2.3 million doses, about 1.8 million have been given, said officials with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The vaccination campaign rolls out next week, but radio spots publicizing the events started Thursday.
H1N1, which appeared in the United States nearly a year ago, has been unpredictable from the start, said health officials who warned that despite the warm weather and "sporadic" rates of infection, the virus could stick around through the summer.
"We have a virus that continues to circulate, we have population at risk and we have vaccine available," said Frances Phillips, Maryland's deputy secretary of public health services.
Maryland's push to use up the vaccine comes as the state reported Thursday its 45th death from the virus. Officials wouldn't offer details except to say it was an adult from the Baltimore area.
Nationwide, the virus has sickened 60 million people, and was responsible for 265,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 deaths. Federal health officials note this new flu has meant severe complications for children, pregnant women and people with underlying health problems.
Maryland's effort comes on the heels of reports in The Washington Post that the federal government has nearly 72 million unused doses of H1N1 vaccine that could be thrown away. Much of the vaccine hasn't expired, but most if it will by the end of June, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. She said every year some portion of the flu vaccine is discarded.
The overabundance of vaccine raises questions about how the government handled a more than $1 billion mass vaccination campaign to confront the pandemic.
At the height of the outbreak last fall, infectious disease experts warned of dire consequences if people didn't get vaccinated. But vaccine makers couldn't fill requests fast enough, and initial shortfalls left anxious-vaccine seekers frustrated. By December, infections began to wane and once-mobbed clinics saw just a trickle of people.