Even as swine flu infections are causing an unprecedented amount of illness for this time of year — and a growing number of deaths, particularly among children — supplies of vaccine to protect against it will be delayed, government health officials said Friday.
In the past week, 11 more children have died from H1N1 influenza infections, an official from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, bringing the total to 86 children since April. That's a startling number because in some past winters, the CDC has counted 40 or 50 child deaths for the entire flu season — and no one knows how long this swine flu outbreak will last.
"These are very sobering statistics," said Dr. Anne Schuchat, the CDC's director of immunization and respiratory diseases.
At the same time, drug manufacturers have told health officials to expect at least 25 percent less vaccine by the end of the month than anticipated. Instead of the 40 million doses projected by the end of October, only 28 million to 30 million doses may be available, said Schuchat.
"We aren't expecting widespread availability until the end of the month or until November," Schuchat said. "It will be pretty challenging to find vaccine."
She urged people anxious to get immunized to check back with their state and local health departments.
Initial vaccine shipments were only of FluMist, the nasal spray version that can be used by only certain people — those ages 2 to 49 who aren't pregnant and have no chronic illnesses such as asthma. But swine flu shots now are shipping, too, accounting for a bit more than half of the vaccine available today, Schuchat said.
Vaccine manufacturers have told CDC that the yield of H1N1 antigen, the substance that produces infection-fighting antibodies, has been lower than expected.
Swine flu is now widespread in 41 states, CDC reported. And overall for the country, deaths from pneumonia and flu-like illnesses have passed what CDC considers an epidemic level. About 6 percent of all doctor visits are for flu-like illnesses, levels not normally seen until later in the fall. Half of the all the child deaths have been in teenagers.
Earlier this week, health officials said that almost half of the hospitalized adult swine flu patients had been healthy people who did not have asthma or any other chronic illnesses before they got sick.
Separately, the World Health Organization said Friday although the H1N1 virus has killed fewer than 5,000 people so far this year worldwide, the influenza remains a cause for concern because of its unpredictable nature.
Most people who catch the H1N1 virus suffer mild symptoms.
"There is a small subset of cases that do and can progress quite rapidly to severe disease and this is sometimes in the space of less than 24 hours and it then becomes a big, big challenge to save the people," said WHO spokesman Gregory Hartl.
"This disease continues to cause concern because it doesn't act exactly like seasonal influenza and because it doesn't affect the same groups who are affected by seasonal influenza."