Officials Weigh In on Swine Flu Vaccine Plans
Flu vaccine plans and the first American death dominate swine flu story.
May 6, 2009— -- The first American death from swine flu has intensified a drive by health officials to make sure the public remains vigilant against the disease. Vaccine manufacturers say that they are in a good position to produce mass quantities of a potential vaccine should the outbreak take a turn for the worse.
Concerns about a vaccine have been at the forefront of plans to curb the swine flu virus, and The Washington Post reported late Tuesday that the Obama administration may even be considering a vaccination plan this fall for Americans that would involve a battery of three shots, two of which would be against the new viral threat.
Such a plan has not yet been confirmed to be in the works. Still, health officials told lawmakers Wednesday it took only two weeks to identify the genetic characteristics of swine flu, which bodes well for fighting the virus on a larger scale should that become necessary.
At the same time, the officials cautioned members of a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee that there are still elements of what they called the novel 2009 H1N1 influenza virus that they don't completely understand.
Judy Trunnell, a 33-year-old Texas woman who died Tuesday is the first known fatality from the swine flu outbreak in the United States, state health authorities reported today.
State health department spokeswoman Carrie Williams told The Associated Press that the schoolteacher, who was pregnant, also had "chronic underlying health conditions" but wouldn't give any more details.
Trunnell died early Tuesday after she'd been hospitalized since April 19, Leonel Lopez, Cameron County epidemiologist, told The Associated Press.
Last week, the state of Texas had listed the woman as critically ill. Trunnell's cousin Mario Zamora told WMAR-TV in Baltimore that Trunnell had died after slipping into a coma. Her baby was delivered by Caesarean section, he said.
"She was just a beautiful person, warm at heart. She worked with disabled children as a teacher," Zamora said. "Those that knew her will always remember her."
Because of Trunnell's long hospitalization, there are currently no concerns that she might have passed the virus to students at the Mercedes Independent School District, where she taught. Still, school district officials announced that they would close its schools, reopening them Monday.
State health officials said it was unclear whether Trunnell had recently traveled to Mexico.
The announcement of the death came on the same day that health officials announced that schools no longer need to shut their doors to curb the spread of swine flu.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said at a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention teleconference that the CDC guidance on school closures has changed in light of "a more mild version of the disease than what originally appeared" in the United States so far.
Dr. Richard Besser, acting director fo the CDC, said that the guidance was changed in light of the serious disruptions associated with school closures.
"For very severe pandemic, the potential benefits of school closures outweigh the risk," Besser said. "But when we get to situations approaching that of seasonal flu, then the downside of school closures outweigh the potential benefit.
"If we felt that there was a benefit there, then we would be continuing to recommend school closures."
Sebelius noted, however, that the change also puts more of a burden on parents and teachers to act responsibly if a child is ill.
"It makes it even more important that parents and teachers and others pay attention to sickness as it breaks out," Sebelius said. "This is not an indication that we know enough yet about the course that this disease will take."
Meanwhile, even though the swine flu outbreak in Mexico is waning and the country is preparing to reopen schools and businesses this week, international health officials have still not ruled out the chance of a new surge in swine flu cases.
And infectious disease experts said that it is too early to say that we are out of the woods when it comes to the disease.
Dr. Gregory Poland, professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said that it is "way too early to 'pull back' yet in our level of concern.
"Always expect the unexpected from influenza," Poland added.
"While there are some signs that are reassuring, less severity, decrease cases in Mexico, et cetera, I believe we are not out of the woods yet," agreed Dr. Christopher Ohl, associate professor of medicine in the section on infectious diseases at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. "I am concerned this virus is with us for a while. It could change, become more virulent, have an increased secondary transmission rate ... in the future."
The virus, according to the World Health Organization, has now killed 30 people and sickened 1,516 in 22 countries.
And the scene is much different in other parts of the world that were hit later during the course of the outbreak.
Two Americans are among hundreds of foreigners still in quarantine in hotels on mainland China as part of the stringent measures that were put in place after a Mexican man, on a flight from Hong Kong to Shanghai, became the first confirmed case of swine flu in China, the world's most populous country.