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FDA commissioner reassures doctors about swine flu vaccine safety

November 10, 2009 |  3:28 pm

Pig Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, sent a letter to all U.S. physicians today thanking them for their help in combating the pandemic H1N1 influenza virus and reassuring them about the safety of the vaccine against the virus. The letter reiterates what public health officials have been saying for months -- that the vaccine is made exactly the same way as the seasonal flu vaccine and that there is absolutely no reason to believe that it is any less safe. The seasonal flu vaccine has been given to hundreds of millions of people with no significant adverse effects. Hamburg said 41 million doses of the swine flu vaccine are available as of today.

The letter also said that federal agencies are making extraordinary efforts to monitor the vaccination program for potential adverse events and asked doctors to report any events they think might be linked to the vaccine to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. She concludes, "The benefits of preventing serious consequences from infection with the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus far outweigh the risks associated with vaccination."

In other swine flu news:

--The swine flu pandemic is affecting U.S. blood supplies, according to the Wall Street Journal.  Because the flu is widespread, the number of available donors is down by 27%, according to America's Blood Centers, a coalition of independent blood collection agencies that is responsible for about half of the U.S. blood supply. Moreover, many people who have donated are calling a day or two later and saying that they have come down with the flu. Their blood donations are destroyed, even though there is no evidence that influenza can be transmitted through blood.

--U.S. officials took considerable heat last week when it was announced that detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility would receive the swine flu vaccine ahead of most Americans, even though the number of people involved was fewer than 250. The vaccination plans were called off. Now, a similar brouhaha has arisen in Canada, where military authorities say that Afghan detainees in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan will get the vaccine before the public. The officials say the vaccination is required by the Geneva convention, which mandates that prisoners receive the same treatment as soldiers, who are a high priority for vaccination.

The Canadian government said that it will have delivered 8.5 million doses of the vaccine to provincial governments by the end of the week. The country has ordered 59 million doses of the vaccine for its population of 30 million.

--Beginning next week, the National Geographic Channel will begin airing a daily two-hour block of programs designed especially for kids stuck at home with the flu. The programming will be culled from the channel's regular programming to provide supplemental education and will be accompanied by additional material at the channel's website.

--As ridiculous as it may sound, people who did not earn a high school diploma may be more likely to contract swine flu and the vaccine may not be as effective in them, according to researchers at the University of Michigan. And no, it is not because they are more likely to believe the tripe they read on vaccine denialists' websites. Instead, it has to do with infection by a common virus known as cytomegalovirus, or CMV. CMV infections tend to persist for very long times and worsen as a person ages, and they make it more difficult for those who are infected to fight off infections like swine flu. They also reduce the immunity stimulated by vaccination.

Epidemiologist Jennifer Dowd of the university and her colleagues had previously shown that the elderly who have limited education have a more difficult time controlling CMV infections, rendering them more susceptible to other infections. Their new study, to be published in the journal Epidemiology, found a similar situation with younger people. They concluded that a person with less than a high school education had the same level of immune control as someone 15 to 20 years older with more than a high school education. So, apparently the moral is: If you can't get the swine flu vaccine, go back and finish high school.

--The CDC has initiated a text alert program to provide information about swine flu to cellphone users. To enroll, text "health" to 87000 or sign up online.

--GlaxoSmithKline said today that it will donate 50 million doses of swine flu vaccine to the World Health Organization for distribution to the world's poorest countries. The donations are expected to arrive through December. Glaxo, Sanofi-Aventis, MedImmune and CSL have jointly agreed to donate 156 million doses to the agency, which said it has a list of 95 countries where it hopes to vaccinate at least 10% of the population.

-- Thomas H. Maugh II