WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Democratic U.S. senator proposed on Friday setting up a free nationwide voluntary flu vaccination program to fend off future outbreaks of dangerous strains.
With the United States on alert for more cases of the new H1N1 swine flu virus, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin said the government should include funding for free vaccines for all Americans in the supplemental spending bill now moving through Congress.
“The harsh reality is that we have repeatedly experienced devastating flu pandemics,” Harkin said in a statement.
“Strictly as a matter of prudent prevention, it is desirable to maximize the number of Americans who are vaccinated each year,” Harkin said. President Barack Obama has requested $1.5 billion from Congress to address the ongoing swine flu outbreak.
Seasonal flu kills more than 30,000 Americans each year and costs the economy more than $90 billion.
New strains such as H1N1, which has infected 331 people in 13 countries including more than 100 in the United States, are potentially even more dangerous as it takes time to develop vaccines against them.
Harkin, who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee on health, said his bill would help build vaccine-manufacturing capacity and prevent production capacity from becoming idle.
“By offering annual free vaccines to all 304 million people in the United States, our vaccine-production capacity will be up and running and ready to shift, when necessary, to mass production of vaccines to fight a future outbreak or pandemic,” Harkin’s statement said.
He said intended to incorporate the measure into broader health reform legislation that Democrats want to pass later this year.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children aged between 5-18 be vaccinated against seasonal influenza and already pays for many under a government program which provides about 43 percent of all recommended childhood vaccines in the United States.
At least 20 companies make flu vaccines, including Sanofi-Aventis, GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis, Baxter International, Australia’s CSL and nasal spray maker MedImmune, now part of AstraZeneca.
reporting by Andrew Quinn, editing by Alan Elsner
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