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Public Health Officials Recommend Swine Flu Vaccine

Audio

Aired 10/16/09

San Diego County public health officials say the best way to prevent against getting infected with the H1N1 influenza virus is to get vaccinated. County officials made that announcement on Wednesday, following the news that a 5-year-old girl from Otay Mesa died from swine flu last week.

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Video unavailable. Read transcript below.

Above: KPBS Reporter Tom Fudge explains the flu vaccine and how County Health Department officials are going to work with school districts to vaccinate children at school.

GLORIA PENNER (Host): I’m Gloria Penner. I’m joined by the editors at the roundtable These Days in San Diego. Today we’ll look into the explosion of warnings and news about swine flu, how the housing market is doing as the economy struggles to recover, and the governor’s role in stirring up the gay rights controversy. The editors with me today on this shortened edition of our show are Hieu Tran Phan. He’s the specialists editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune, and he joins us for his second appearance on the show. Hieu, I’m glad you came back. Obviously, you had a good experience.

HIEU TRAN PHAN (Specialists Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): It’s good to be here, Gloria.

PENNER: Thank you, Hieu. And Tom York, Tom is the contributing editor for the San Diego Business Journal, and one of our favorite panelists. We’re happy you’re with us, too, Tom.

TOM YORK (Contributing Editor, San Diego Business Journal): Well, Gloria, it’s always a pleasure to be here and to talk issues of the day.

PENNER: Thank you. Our telephone number, if you would like to talk those issues of the day with us, are 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Well, you know, an occasional story stirs the media about the swine flu death of a child or the sickness hitting a school hard and, of course, we react. We actively consider the vaccine, we avoid handshakes, and lately it seems that swine flu blankets the news. So Hieu, is it perception or reality that swine flu stories and warnings are proliferating?

PHAN: I think, actually, swine flu coverage has been pretty strong. It started off in April when it first emerged, first reported in San Diego County, and then became a quick national and then global pandemic, and then it tapered off a bit in the summer. Swine flu never went away during that time, actually, but with school out and the weather being a bit warmer, it got better. And then now with the fall season, school’s back, classes are resuming, and then you see, of course, the traditional flu season about to reappear. I think there’s a greater and greater campaign by public health officials at all levels of government and also your health providers, your doctors and nurses and so forth, trying to get the message out about vaccination.

PENNER: So is that what’s driving the coverage?

PHAN: I think it’s also…

PENNER: The – the providers and the public health specialists?

PHAN: I think it’s also that you’re already seeing regional outbreaks of swine flu. In at least 30 states now we’ve had large clusters of new swine flu cases, and so I think this H1N1 situation is a really difficult challenge for health providers. They don’t want to panic parents and they don’t want to panic the public but they also need to be very cautious in telling people you need to go and get vaccinated or you need to at least observe the practices of good hygiene.

PENNER: Well, since this is a shortened show, I’m going to ask our listeners to join us as soon as they possibly can and ask them the question, do you feel like coverage of the swine flu has been sufficient or over the top? I’d like to hear from you on this. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. How warranted do you believe all this coverage is, Tom York?

YORK: Well, I think there’s, you know, the swine flu is certainly a danger to the population and so I think the media is being overly focused on it but on the – at the same time, you know, it’s hard to say where it’s all going to turn out. It could be a very serious threat to public health or it could not.

PENNER: Well…

YORK: We just don’t know.

PENNER: …we learn – We learned on Wednesday, for example, that a San Diego five-year-old died in the emergency room at Rady Children’s Hospital from the disease and that 81 other kids in the United States has died from it, at least 81, and each death is tragic. Do you think, Tom, that each one should receive news treatment?

YORK: Well, in the case of swine flu, I think that each death is receiving, you know, media coverage. Even with regular flus, you have several thousand people who die from the – either the flu itself or from the secondary conditions, and – But this is a special case in that there’s just so much media attention focused on it, so we’re going to see – see the media covering, you know, individual cases that – as they come up.

PENNER: All right. Well, let’s hear from our listeners on that question that I asked earlier, whether coverage is just too much or whether it’s enough or whether we even need more. We’ll start with Peter in Point Loma. Peter, you are on with the editors. Thanks for calling.

PETER (Caller, Point Loma): Yeah, thanks for taking my call.

PENNER: Yes.

PETER: Yeah, my wife’s an ER physician and one of the things that she kind of has to remind me of and that is, she says, well, where are the numbers reflecting how many physicians, how many nurses may have fallen because of this swine flu? She said when it really gets to be a pandemic or something serious, that’s the first round of fatalities, much like the Spanish influenza 90 years ago or whenever that was, 80 years ago.

PENNER: Right, okay.

PETER: And then one of the other things also is that, you know, much – again, for me, this is very much over the top. What happened to SARS? What happened to the West Nile disease? All these other things that we constantly get bombarded by and then it kind of peters out. And is this swine flu that much more virulent than the normal flus that are going on out there on a regular basis?

PENNER: All right, let’s turn to Hieu on that. Hieu Tran Phan, who’s the editor in charge of this at the Union-Tribune. And I just want to make one point here. A caller did call and say it’s being called H1N1 virus, not swine flu. I notice that those are being used optionally or alternatively so, Hieu, why don’t you answer our caller’s question, then we’ll look at terms.

PHAN: A really quick technical thing since we’re on that. There are numerous ways that we’re – this disease is being referred to. You have the traditional term swine flu because most variants of the strain of this virus are swine related. You also have H1N1 and now the latest journals and academic universities and so forth are calling them H1N1-09 or 2001-H1N1 influenza, so there are lots of ways to refer to it.

PENNER: None of them are incorrect, I guess.

PHAN: Yes. Yes.

PENNER: Okay.

PHAN: I would like to address, is it Peter’s…?

PENNER: Peter, yeah.

PHAN: …questions in two quick ways. One is I’d like to make a distinction between the technical medical side of swine flu and then the emotional component of it. I think if you look at the statistics so far, swine flu has not been more virulent than regular flu and has not been less severe than some of the regular flu either. It tends to attack a disproportionate number of young people, unlike the traditional flu, which tends to hit seniors and people with compromised immune systems, so that is an anomaly so far. The emotional component is, such as this death of Alitza Sanchez that we saw announced this week, when you have a child and when you have a loved one who dies from swine flu or regular flu, it doesn’t matter what the statistics are. It becomes alarming to that family member and it probably creates a sense of fear in the local community, too.

PENNER: Sure.

PHAN: So I think this is a really difficult dichotomy for a lot of public health officials. In terms of the second question that Peter brought up, in terms of whether health workers, frontline health workers are dying at greater rates, no, they aren’t so far. The statistics don’t bear that out.

PENNER: Well, you can understand why Peter’s concerned. His wife works in an emergency room and she will be one of the first responders, I guess. Okay, well, this is the time when we are going to pass the baton just for a few minutes off to our colleagues in another studio but we will be back and we’ll take more of your calls and continue this discussion on the swine flu on Editors Roundtable.

PENNER: And this is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner. We’re talking about swine flu coverage. And I’m here with Hieu Tran Phan of the Union-Tribune, and Tom York of the San Diego Business Journal. We were just talking about whether coverage was too far, too over the top, and at this point now there seems to be, Hieu, a certain amount of confusion about why isn’t the vaccine here? Who’s going to get it? How will you get it? You know, all those questions are sort of being stirred up and it seems to me that even with all the news coverage, we’re still not seeing any clear answers coming out regarding the availability of the vaccine. Why is that?

PHAN: This is ‘the’ topic right now for swine flu and I’ll try to clarify things for people. One, there – we are on track, on schedule in terms of shipping out swine flu vaccine in two forms, the flu mist nasal spray, which came out first. It tends to be for children. And then for swine flu shots, they are coming out, that we should be receiving them this week in the county with both the county and regular health providers, and those, again, the first group includes pregnant women, young children and young adults, and there’s some other things, too, that you can check on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. In terms of whether you should get the vaccine or not, I don’t want to vouch for any personal decisions but I would say public health officials are mounting this renewed campaign to tell people that it is more safe than you could ever imagine. We’ll have to see how that plays out over the next few months, whether side effects crop up.

PENNER: We still have time for any of your comments or questions on this segment, 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. All right, so there we have the flu vaccine coming. Some people will get it, some won’t. But people are really concerned so, Tom York, is there reason to believe that social customs such as handshaking and handholding and hugging and kissing is – will change and perhaps will stay changed as people sort of stay away from being touched by someone who might possibly carry the germ?

YORK: I think people are going to be cautious. You know, at the gym where I go they’ve put up, you know, hand wipe and so everybody’s using it more, I notice. I notice I use it more just simply because I just don’t want to get some strange viruses floating around. But I think as far as not kissing, hugging, you know, not shaking hands, I just don’t see that happening unless we really have a very virulent outbreak and it becomes a very desperate situation.

PENNER: Okay, so what do you think is the optimal role that the media can play during this outbreak?

YORK: Well, I think it’s an information role, which is what it’s playing right now. I think sometimes, as we’ve talked about, it goes over the top but at the same time I think, you know, there’s reason to be concerned because we don’t know exactly how this is all going to play out. So, you know, it’s better to probably be a little over the top than to be a little, you know, underplaying the situation.

PENNER: What about context, Hieu? That kind of concerns me sometimes. For example, we understand that the five-year-old, Alitza Ortiz Sanchez, died when the virus attacked her heart muscle. Was it made clear that other flu viruses can also infect muscles and attack muscles?

PHAN: Yes, actually Keith Darcé, our medical writer, has been kept very busy covering this and today we have a story looking at that exact context, which is it is unusual for viruses to cause fatality because of heart failure but it is not uncommon for them to actually invade muscles, including heart muscle. So that’s why you get the body aches and that’s why you get pain and lethargy when you have the flu. It usually, though, kills people from respiratory failure or from other complications. It’s not typical for a heart related flu death.

PENNER: Well, certainly the story deserves a lot more time but today we’re having an abbreviated edition and so we will move on.

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