July 9, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- The initial scare posed by the sudden emergence of swine flu in April may have passed, but federal officials are warning against complacency and taking no chances as they brace for the virus' expected return in the fall.
On Thursday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and others led an H1N1 swine flu "preparedness summit" at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. The summit comes amid reports that the H1N1 virus continues to infect people in the United States and at least 100 other countries. Infections are becoming increasingly widespread in the Southern Hemisphere, where flu season is under way.
"Scientists and public health experts forecast that the impact of H1N1 may well worsen in the fall -- when the regular flu season hits, or even earlier, when schools start to open -- which is only five or six weeks away in some cases," Sebelius said in a news release.
"The goal of the summit is to launch a national influenza campaign by bringing federal, state and local officials, emergency managers, educators and others together with the nation's public health experts to build on and tailor states' existing pandemic plans, share lessons learned and best practices during the spring and summer H1N1 wave, and discuss preparedness priorities," she added.
The H1N1 swine flu first surfaced in the United States in mid-April, and has since infected an estimated 1 million Americans. Although the virus continues to produce mild illness and patients recover fairly quickly, 170 people in the United States have died from the disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The World Health Organization's most recent figures put the number of deaths globally at 429.
The WHO last month formally declared a pandemic, triggered by the rapid spread of the H1N1 virus across North America, Australia, South America, Europe and regions beyond.
U.S. health officials have said they are considering a swine flu immunization campaign that could involve an unprecedented 600 million doses of vaccine. Still to be worked out is finding enough health-care workers to administer all those shots, and determining ways to record side effects if the vaccine is given at the same time as the seasonal flu vaccine, officials said.
The timing of the program depends on how fast a vaccine can be produced and tested. Preliminary trial vaccines are expected within several weeks.
The 600 million doses would dwarf the roughly 115 million doses of seasonal flu vaccine and the 150 million doses of childhood vaccines distributed each year, the Associated Press reported.
Meanwhile, federal health officials continue to monitor the H1N1 virus as it still circulates in the United States -- some children are being infected at summer camps, for instance -- and 120 other countries, especially in the Southern Hemisphere where the flu season is under way. Scientists are concerned the virus could mutate as it travels around the world, becoming more virulent and posing a greater health threat.
What makes the H1N1 strain different from the typical seasonal flu is that about half of the people killed worldwide were young and previously healthy. In contrast, regular forms of the seasonal flu typically prove most lethal to the very young and the elderly.
SOURCES: July 9, 2009, news release, U.S. Health and Human Services; Associated Press