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Homeland Security: Flu Will Get Jump On Vaccine

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Tuesday that pandemic flu probably will flare up soon after schools open in the fall, before vaccine is available.

Napolitano also acknowledged that there would not be enough pandemic flu vaccine for everyone, at least in the early stages of the flu season. "There will be prioritization of vaccinations," she told members of the USA TODAY editorial board.

The flu strain causing the pandemic, a new H1N1 virus also known as swine flu, is especially dangerous because it differs from every other known flu virus. As a result, most people are defenseless against it. That makes a vaccine the keystone of any effort to prevent illness and save lives. The first batches of the vaccine are due in mid-October.

Napolitano said this year's flu season probably will be severe but not as severe as the 1918 pandemic, the world's worst. In 1918, flu killed at least 675,000 people in the USA and up to 50 million worldwide. She said it's more likely that the pandemic would mirror 1957, when flu killed about 70,000 people in the USA and 1 million to 2 million people worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 36,000 people in the USA die and 200,000 are hospitalized in typical flu seaons.

William Schaffner, a flu expert at Vanderbilt University, cautions that "flu is fickle" and there's no way to predict precisely how the coming flu season will unfold. One difference between swine flu and the 1957 version is that the new virus strikes a higher proportion of children and young people than the elderly. "If that holds, the group most vulnerable to the complications of influenza will continue to be spared," Schaffner says. "But H1N1 has a tremendous capacity to make children and young adults very sick."

Last week, a panel of experts advised the CDC that the first vaccinations should go to pregnant women; parents and contacts of children younger than 6 months; health care workers; all children and young adults; and all non-elderly adults with chronic medical conditions. The government recommends vaccinations for seasonal and swine flu.

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