KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

Reports Warns Swine Flu Could Affect Half Of U.S. Population

A presidential panel released a report that says swine flu could infect up to half of the U.S. population. It warns that schools could be acutely affected and urges the release of vaccines and drugs in September.

The Washington Post reports: "Swine flu could infect half the U.S. population this fall and winter, hospitalizing up to 1.8 million people and causing as many as 90,000 deaths -- more than double the number that occur in an average flu season, according to an estimate from a presidential panel released Monday. The virus could cause symptoms in 60 million to 120 million people, more than half of whom might seek medical attention, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology estimated in an 86-page report to the White House assessing the government's response to the first influenza pandemic in 41 years. Although most of the cases probably would be mild, up to 300,000 people could require intensive care, which could tie up all those beds in some parts of the country at the peak of the outbreak, the council said."

The Washington Post also reports, "The estimates mark the first time experts have released specific calculations about the possible U.S. impact of the pandemic. The 'plausible scenario' is based on previous pandemics and how the swine flu behaved in the United States this spring and during the Southern Hemisphere's winter over the past few months, said Marc Lipsitch of the Harvard School of Public Health, who helped prepare the estimate" (Stein, 8/25).

The Wall Street Journal reports: "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that a larger number of people could become ill with swine flu than contract seasonal flu because the H1N1 virus strain is new and few have immunity to it. About 36,000 people die of the seasonal flu every year, and about 90% of them are over 65 years old. ... (Swine flu cases) would put a strain on the U.S. health-care system, the panel noted, because those patients could occupy between 50% and 100% of available intensive-care beds at the peak of the epidemic in affected regions, while ICU units normally operate close to capacity. Seasonal flu normally causes about 200,000 hospitalizations a year" (McKay, 8/25).

CNN reports on the study and lists several recommendations for government agencies (8/24).

Meanwhile, Reuters reports on swine flu drugs and vaccines: "U.S. officials should help drug companies speed up the supply of swine flu drugs and vaccines, making at least some shots available by mid-September, White House science advisers said on Monday. ... they also urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to quickly decide on new, intravenous formulations of flu drugs, including current drugs such as Roche AG's Tamiflu and GlaxoSmithKline's Relenza but also BioCryst Pharmaceuticals' experimental drug peramivir. The news sent BioCryst's shares soaring more than 25 percent to $12.60 as trading closed on Nasdaq" (Fox, 8/24).

Associated Press/Wall Street Journal reports: "In a report, the advisers also urged that federal health officials do more social networking to put the young people targeted by the virus on notice; clarify who should use anti-flu drugs and how; and improve tracking of the fast-moving virus. ... The vaccine issue is tougher. The council recommended that manufacturers begin packaging bulk vaccine into vials and syringes immediately so some could be available in September for those at high risk, rather than awaiting the results of studies under way to settle dosing and other questions. The government already has asked all five manufacturers to bottle its doses as soon as they're ready. ... But just last week, health officials announced a delay in swine-flu vaccine production for a number of reasons, including a logjam at packaging factories" (8/24).

NPR reports: "With school campuses expected to be major transmission points for the spread of the flu, the president's panel called on the Department of Health and Human Services to accelerate the availability of some of the flu vaccine to mid-September. In most of the country, school is in full swing by the beginning of September, and experts said peak infection may occur in mid-October. With young people being at risk for illness, the White House panel recommended an intensive public education campaign aimed directly at them" (Tedford, 8/24).

ABC News also reports on the dire warnings, noting, "others are more skeptical, saying these numbers seem to be a worst-case scenario" (Kerkley, Owens and Bass, 8/24).

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