The number of children who have died from the swine flu has jumped sharply as the virus continues to spread widely around the United States, striking
youngsters, teenagers, young adults and pregnant women unusually often, federal officials said Friday.
The deaths of another 19 children and teenagers from the new H1N1 virus were reported in the past week around the country, including two in Maryland,
pushing the total number of fatalities to 76 among those younger than age 18, officials said. It was the largest number of pediatric deaths reported
in a single week since the pandemic began last spring.
"These pediatric deaths seem to be increasing substantially," said Anne Schuchat, who heads the federal Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
While most of the children who have died have had other health problems that made them particularly vulnerable, such as asthma, muscular dystrophy and
cerebral palsy, about 20 percent to 30 percent were otherwise healthy, Schuchat said.
Between 46 and 88 children died from the seasonal flu in each of the last three years, so the fact that so many have already succumbed is disturbing,
"It's only the beginning of October," she said, noting that the flu season usually starts much later and runs through May. "We saw a peak of
deaths, you know, starting April, May, June. It started to level off this summer. Now it's starting to shoot up again."
In addition to the two deaths in Maryland, three were reported in Tennessee, seven occurred in Texas and one occurred in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado,
Florida, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.
The increase in pediatric deaths comes as the federal government's unprecedented vaccination campaign is just getting underway. Millions of doses of
vaccine began arriving around the country this week.
It provided more reason why parents should get themselves and their children vaccinated against the virus, Schuchat said.
"Vaccine against flu is the best way to protect yourself from influenza and those around you," she said said.
The federal government has spent about $2 billion to buy at least 250 million doses of vaccine in the hopes of inoculating more than half the U.S.
population, and has pledged to buy enough to vaccinate everyone if there is sufficient demand.
So far states and cities have ordered 3.7 million doses of the 6.8 million that have become available and the first doses were administered this week.
Some doctors and clinics are reporting being flooded with requests for the vaccine. But several national surveys have found that only about 40 percent
of Americans are sure they will get it, with those who are reluctant citing doubts about the severity of the virus and concerns about side effects.
The vaccine campaign is also fueling anti-government sentiments and false rumors that the vaccine is mandatory. Although New York State and some
individual hospitals and private health chains are requiring their employees to get vaccinated this year for the first time, the vaccine remains
voluntary for most people.
"Lots of rumors out there and we're trying to address them," Schuchat said.
Additional data from federal studies testing the vaccine have found no evidence of any unusual risks and have confirmed preliminary indications that
the vaccine is effective for most adults with one standard dose.
At least 37 states are reporting widespread flu activity, up from 27 a week ago. While the number of cases appears to be decreasing in some places, it
is increasing in others and could rise again in areas where cases are dropping, Schuchat said. New York and some other cities that experienced large
outbreaks in the spring are reporting fewer cases than expected, but Schuchat warned that could change at any time.
"It's hard to know how many waves we're going to have into the fall, winter and spring," she said. "We still think the vast majority of people in
a given community are vulnerable or susceptible to this virus."
Although the virus causes mild illness for most people, some people become seriously ill, requiring intensive care to try to save them.
"Unfortunately, we do expect more illness, including more hospitalizations and deaths, to be occurring in the weeks ahead," she said.
Schuchat also encouraged people to get the seasonal flu vaccine. Some areas are experiencing shortage of seasonal flu vaccine, in part because
manufacturers are juggling producing both vaccines. New data from another federal study aimed at determining whether people can get both vaccines at
the same time found that was no problem.