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H1N1 Vaccine Reaching Poorer Nations as Flu Fears Continue to Wane

BY Talea Miller  January 7, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT

Nasal H1N1 vaccine; AFP/GETTY

The first World Health Organization shipments of vaccine donated by drug manufacturers to developing countries will arrive in Mongolia Thursday, followed by Azerbaijan and Afghanistan in the next few days — months after the flu season began in the northern hemisphere.

The deliveries mark the kickoff of WHO’s effort to vaccinate 2 percent of the population in 95 lower-income countries over the next three months, and 10 percent in those nations by the fall, according to Marie-Paule Kieny, director of the WHO vaccine initiative.

But as the flu season wears on, fears of widespread severe cases and deaths due to H1N1 pandemic flu are subsiding and the clamor for the vaccine is dying down. WHO is now in the unexpected position of having to reiterate the importance of the vaccine.

“None of the countries have told us that they don’t want vaccine yet…but the outcry that we were hearing at the beginning of the peak is now less,” Kieny said.

She warned that despite the many delays the program hit, because of high global demand and slow vaccine production, there could still be another wave of the illness in the north, and the southern hemisphere will face flu season again soon.

“We are still in the pandemic, it is not over yet,” Kieny said. “There is still a lot of uncertainty about how this will evolve.”

While supply of the vaccine in developed countries is beginning to catch up with –and in some case exceed—demand, none of the countries, including the United States, that pledged to donate vaccine to the WHO effort have fulfilled that promise yet.

Several European countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, have announced plans to sell off excess stock and France announced Tuesday it is cancelling half of its vaccine orders, 50 million of the 94 million doses it planned.

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France has vaccinated about 5 million people, roughly eight percent of its population, reported Agence France Presse.

And in the United States, where footage of parents and children waiting in hours-long lines for H1N1 vaccines was splashed across news channels in the fall, H1N1 vaccination is now open to the general public and health departments are putting out the call for patients.

“There are months left in the flu season and there is still benefit of getting the flu shot,” Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the NewsHour. “It’s been a long time that we’ve said it’s been a priority for those … with underlying conditions, now its everyone’s turn.”

In early December, Utah opened H1N1 vaccination to the general public, after determining that the priority groups, including pregnant women, children and young adults, had been adequately reached and the supply of vaccine allowed for services to be expanded.

Dr. David Sundwall, executive director of the Utah Department of Health, said the state estimates it has vaccinated 18 percent of its population for H1N1, but would like to reach more.

“There is not a reluctance to be vaccinated in our state,” Sundwall said. But now that the vaccine is open to the general public, Sundwall admits, “people are suffering from flu fatigue, it been in the news so much.”

The early push to get priority groups vaccinated also took its toll, Sundwall said.

“Every state experienced this problem with over-promise and then delays … we were promoting this to the public before there was enough delivered,” he said. It’s one of the lessons the department is taking from this experience so it can plan better for future pandemics.

“This really was a brand new first time effort to vaccinate everyone,” he said. “This has been I think a learning experience for all of us.”