Kathleen Sebelius: Vaccination Is the Best Defense Against H1N1

HHS secretary tells "GMA" fears about the new vaccine are caused by myths.

Oct. 7, 2009— -- As hospitals and clinics begin administrating doses of H1N1 flu vaccine to children, some parents and even doctors are unsure whether the dosage will have any effect -- fears that health officials say are unfounded.

"The vaccination is being made exactly the same way seasonal flu vaccine has been made year in and year out," Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said on "Good Morning America" Tuesday. "We have the right vaccine for this virus. We have years of clinical data for seasonal flu vaccine. ... It's the best defense against the flu."

The administration has attempted to alleviate fears by enlisting "Sesame Street" character Elmo to demonstrate how to sneeze properly and to educate children -- one of the groups most at risk -- about the H1N1 flu.

Have concerns about the H1N1 vaccine and your children? CLICK HERE and "GMA" might ask medical experts to answer your question.

Children started receiving doses of the H1N1 flu vaccine Tuesday in what is likely to be the largest flu-vaccination campaign in U.S. history.

The other group most at risk is pregnant women. Sebelius encouraged pregnant women to get the vaccination to protect themselves and their babies.

"Vaccination is the best defense against a disease like this," the former Kansas governor told "GMA's" Robin Roberts. "We would like people to take this seriously. ... We are hoping that people take advantage of the fact that the vaccine is going to be available. It's going to be easy; we know its safe."

The H1N1 vaccine is different from the regular seasonal flu vaccine, and officials are encouraging Americans to get both to keep themselves fully protected. Sebelius encouraged people to get the vaccine not just for themselves but to keep others protected as well.

"I hear that all the time, 'This is just the flu.' Just the flu kills people," she said. "We now have over 600 deaths reported. Taking the chance that you or your roommate or your child may be one of those rare but serious cases may have underlying impact may expose someone else."

Shipments of the vaccine, which were initially expected to start rolling in on Oct. 15, began arriving early in 14 states. Health officials Tuesday said 2.2 million vaccine doses -- more than 90 percent of the 2.4 million doses available -- were ordered for all states. The total cost, officials estimate, will likely top $2 billion.

These early doses of swine flu vaccine -- so far all given as the nasal spray FluMist -- have been administered at hospitals in Chicago, Georgia and Nebraska, among other places.

Doctors, nurses and other health professionals received the vaccine first Monday so they could safely care for others.

Sebelius said more are on the way.

"We are going to continue to push it out as fast as we can from the production line," she said, encouraging people to get the latest information on vaccinations at flu.gov.

ABC News senior health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser said Tuesday that about 20 million doses every week will start arriving within the next few weeks.

Doctors Inundated by Phone Calls

Despite concerns about the vaccination, phones have begun ringing in doctor's offices across the country.

"As many people who can grab calls have been," said Kathy Paterno, a registered nurse at Westchester Pediatrics near New York City.

Some of those callers will have to wait.

"It will be many, many weeks before all of the demand for vaccine catches up with the supply," Besser said. "The supply will not be there for quite a while."

On Monday, hospitals began receiving the first shipments of FluMist, with some doses being administered in tents originally put up to screen children with potential swine flu.

Le Bonheur Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., and Wishard Health Services in Indiana were among the very first hospitals in the nation to receive vaccines on Monday. They vaccinated about 150 and 100 staffers respectively.

Both reported that so far at least, the deployment of immunizations has gone smoothly.

"This has been a shining example of no delay," said Susan Cooper, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health, after Le Bonheur's shipment arrived. "The vaccine has come out. It's come out a little bit earlier than expected. It hit the ground, and we were able to very quickly start the immunization process, and that's something I think that we should be very proud of."

While she was not certain why Le Bonheur got the H1N1 vaccination early, Cooper said she suspected it was because the Memphis area has been particularly hard hit. More than 6,000 cases have been reported there, and more than 100 children have been hospitalized, so people in the region are more likely to seek the vaccine.

"Since Le Bonheur is the premier pediatric hospital in that area, it would make sense to make sure their work force is protected," she said.

For Wishard, based in Indianapolis, it may have been a matter of good homework.

"Indiana was one of the first states selected because they were one of the first states that had their paperwork in very quickly," said Collette Duvalle, director of communications for the health department in Marion County, which includes Indianapolis.

Jockeying For Position

"My sense is people understand that health care professionals will be the ones taking care of people, so it's important for them to be immunized," said Michelle O'Keefe, director of public affairs for Wishard. "We want our employees to be here and be well, and I get the sense that people understand that."

Hospital officials said they could not predict what might happen as vaccines become available to members of the general public.

Sara Burnett, a spokeswoman for Le Bonheur, said that while hospital workers have begun to receive the vaccine, they have also received inquiries from people who cannot yet get vaccinated but want to.

"We've had questions about when is it available," she said. "We've referred those back to the Tennessee Department of Health."

And some primary care doctors, responding to an ABC News inquiry, said they have not yet received the vaccine, but they have gotten plenty of inquiries.

"I'm getting pounded," said Dr. Randy Wexler, assistant professor of clinical family medicine at Ohio State University Medical Center. "People want to know when they can get it, and they want to be placed at the top' of the waiting list."

A similar rush is taking place in Washington, D.C.

"Yes, patients are asking when the H1N1 flu vaccine will be available," said Geeta Nayyar, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at George Washington University. "So much so, that they are trying to coordinate their office visits with when the vaccine is available, so they can make one office visit."

But while many people may be asking for vaccinations now, Tennessee's Cooper said she has chosen to look on the bright side.

"This is just the beginning," she said. "So again, we will continue to see vaccine being delivered to our state and hopefully within a very few weeks there will be enough vaccine for any Tennessean who wants it to get it."

Doctors nationwide are hoping for the same thing.