Vaccines to Prevent Secondary Infection Urged During Swine Flu Scare

Bacterial infections are not an uncommon flu complication. Even during normal flu seasons, they pose a very real, even potentially fatal risk to the elderly. This year, however, there has been a spike among Americans with the H1N1 flu. And unlike most of these infections, these seem to pose a real risk to children and younger adults.

November 25, federal health officials cited this troubling spike as they urged more at risk individuals to seek out a vaccine to prevent these secondary infections.

Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of immunization and respiratory disease for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, used Denver as an example. Denver is one of ten cities her organization monitors for circulating bacteria strains. In a typical October, the city might have twenty cases of bacterial secondary infections following the flu; this October, they experienced nearly sixty, two thirds of which were in adults under sixty.

Dr. Schuchat spoke not only of this trend and the particulars of the diseases involved, but also encouraging the use of the Pneumovax vaccine. The Pneumovax vaccine protects those who receive it from twenty-three strains of bacteria which commonly cause pneumonia. It is routinely given to adults over sixty-five, but according to Schuchat it could benefit anyone with increased risk factors – factors such as diabetes, asthma, smoking, or suffering from heart, kidney or lung disease. Only perhaps a quarter of younger adults have had it, according to the doctor.

The symptoms of these secondary infections often start as an apparent relapse in a patient who had seemed to be recovering from the flu. This is caused when bacteria from the nose and throat move into the lungs when they are still inflamed from the flu. From the lung tissue, bacteria can potentially enter the blood stream, where they may spread to other systems and the infection can become even more dangerous, and potentially even deadly.

Schuchat urged doctors to be alert for signs of pneumonia in swine flu patients.

At the same time, swine flu vaccines continue to be produced, with 61 million doses now available. Here in Atlanta, organizations have worked hard to make them available to the most at risk groups – children and infants, those who live with infants under six months in age, the elderly, pregnant women, asthmatics and others with factors which might compromise their immune systems.

Officials have been monitoring the reports of side effects for the swine flu vaccine, and have been reassured by the results. The averse side effects of the vaccines have followed the patterns observed most years with the normal seasonal flu vaccine. Ninety-four percent of these reactions so far have, after review, been deemed “not serious.” A “not serious” reaction may present as something like a sore arm.

Serious negative effects often result from a previously undiagnosed allergy to some ingredient in the vaccine, such as the eggs (in which the vaccines are produced). There have been six allergic reactions reported so far, all treated successfully and, according to Dr. Schucat, this number is not more than expected.