People have been asking me if it's to late to get the H1N1 flu vaccine to do any good. As a doctor, a father and the commissioner of health, this question concerns me.
The answer is no, it is absolutely not to late to get vaccinated. H1N1 is still killing people. It is still hospitalizing people. The virus is still circulating. We have a powerful tool in our arsenal against it - a vaccine that is safe, effective and now plentiful. People who have not been vaccinated should do so now.
We are concerned about what might be around the corner, especially if people lose interest in being vaccinated and another wave of illness hits us harder, faster and stronger because we became complacent. We have weathered two major waves of the illness so far, one last spring and one last fall. We have a window of opportunity before a possible third wave. Now is the perfect time to get vaccinated.
We certainly don't know what to expect from H1N1 flu. It is unpredictable. It might come back with a vengeance tomorrow. It might disappear in the spring. From past pandemics we know that a resurgence of H1N1 early this year is very possible. We need to stay ahead of it. It's easier and smarter to prevent an illness than to combat it once it has already taken hold.
Predicting the severity and occurrence levels of any flu is fairly impossible. Traditional flu season is from October through mid-May. The highest levels of seasonal flu in Texas usually occur in January and February. But not always. H1N1 only appeared last April. We don't know yet if it will follow any seasonal pattern, and much hinges on the natural immunity that the population is building up.
Texas has been on the front lines since the H1N1 virus was first identified in the United States last year. We reported some of the first causes and unfortunately the first deaths in the country. In October we began distributing the initial limited supply of vaccine using an unprecedented, highly targeted system through our state health department. We have been diligently tracking deaths and hospitalizations of those with H1N1.
People who choose not to get vaccinated put themselves and those around them at risk, especially babies younger than 6 months old who are too young for the vaccination. Nearly 200 babies younger than 6 months have been hospitalized with H1N1 in Texas. Sadly, deaths have occurred in every age group, young and old. Though most H1N1 illnesses have been relatively mild, no flu should be dismissed as "just the flu."
Many parents of children younger than 10 years old are due to take their kids for their second recommended dose. I suggest those parents also get themselves vaccinated at that time.
Physicians should continue to urge their patients to be vaccinated against H1N1 flu. Pregnant women in particular have had severe complications from this virus. People with asthma, diabetes, heart disease, lung disease and other health conditions are at a higher risk and should be vaccinated. Older adults and seniors also have shown to have complications when infected and should be vaccinated.
The good news is that we finally have enough vaccine. We have a flu vaccine locator at TexasFlu.org to help people find doses close to them. Pharmacies, doctor's offices, local health departments and many schools have plenty of vaccine to go around. We had been looking forward to reaching this point since the first dose arrived in Texas in early October. The general public waited patiently as we targeted the scarce supply to those in the highest priority groups and then to other priority groups as supplies increased.
Now, there is enough for everyone who wants it.
We must take advantage of this supply. As more people get vaccinated, the less we need to worry about the spread of illness during a possible third wave. Protect yourself. Protect each other.