Swine flu is back in the news. Remember last summer when we were donning face masks and begging our docs for Tamiflu? And who could forget those three-hour lines to get vaccinated? All the while, we were getting mixed messages from well-intentioned but overwhelmed health officials. The White House warned that up to 90,000 Americans could die of swine flu—now known as H1N1—since, after all, the H1N1 virus is spread by people, not just pigs. At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told us not to panic even though manufacturers they hired were months behind in producing the vaccine. Well, this week brings another round of confusing news: The World Health Organization declared that the H1N1 pandemic is officially over. "The new H1N1 virus has largely run its course," said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan at a news teleconference on Tuesday. Yet guess what? The CDC is putting H1N1 into this year's flu vaccine, which also includes two other viruses.
Seems crazy, but the decision to include H1N1 makes sense because the virus is still circulating worldwide. "Based on experience with past pandemics," said Chan, "we expect the H1N1 virus to take on the behavior of a seasonal influenza virus and continue to circulate for some years to come." So, yes, it's important to get vaccinated against the flu this year, and, yes, folks can still get this year's combination shot even if they were already vaccinated against H1N1 last year.
What's not being widely discussed, though, is how well (or badly) government health officials predicted the trajectory of H1N1. The 30,000 to 90,000 deaths projected by the White House turned out to be wildly inflated. The CDC now estimates the actual number at 12,000, still a terrible toll but one that's eclipsed by the 17,000 to 52,000 deaths a year historically caused by seasonal flu. (On the other hand, a reason to take it seriously is that those killed were predominantly young, healthy people, including many children, while most of those killed by seasonal flu are over 65.)
CDC's predictions of the epidemic's peak were also way off the mark. While Purdue University researchers forecasted that the U.S. outbreaks would climax in October and then begin to wane, CDC officials insisted that the peak would come later. Some federal officials also said they expected another H1N1 wave to hit in the spring. That never happened. And looking back on the CDC's colorful flu situation updates, the outbreaks started to recede around the time the H1N1 vaccine—federal cost, $1.6 billion—became readily available. Turns out more than half the government's massive stockpile of H1N1 vaccine remains unused; only between 81 million to 91 million out of 229 million doses were administered to American patients. The rest, untouched and soon to expire, will be discarded.
No doubt the vaccine helped contain the epidemic, but some in Congress are pushing to overhaul the antiquated ways flu vaccines are produced. "We need to continue to explore technologies to improve the stability of the flu vaccine supply," Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) told the Washington Post in April. That would leave manufacturers better prepared to produce vaccine the next time we're hit with an unexpected outbreak.