WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Only half of the people in the United States who most need immediate treatment for H1N1 swine flu are actually seeking it, even as the virus spreads at unprecedented speed, U.S. health officials said on Friday.
The latest count shows 114 children have been killed by the virus in the United States since April, during a time when there is usually virtually no influenza, said U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Thomas Frieden.
And while President Barack Obama expressed frustration over vaccine delays, analysts said his credibility was at risk if vaccination did not start to go more smoothly.
Frieden said H1N1 is widespread, and case counts continue to rise in most states.
“One of the things that we have been surprised to see is even among people who have underlying conditions such as asthma, heart disease or lung disease, only half sought care,” Frieden told reporters in a briefing.
At the same time, emergency departments were crowded but often with people who did not need medical care, he said.
CDC researchers estimated this week that as many as 5.7 million people in the United States have been infected so far, with at least 1,300 deaths.
Frieden said the CDC had a cumulative 26.6 million doses of vaccine available — far short of the 40 to 80 million that had been forecast for the end of October. Lines have formed outside clinics as people seek the vaccine.
The Health and Human Services Department had predicted 20 million doses would roll out every week but just 10 million have been produced in the past seven days.
“Frustration over swine flu vaccine availability has created a growing credibility gap for governments in the U.S., Canada, western Europe, Hong Kong and Japan attempting to vaccinate large portions of their population,” Scott Rosenstein of political risk consultancy Eurasia Group said in a note.
“To date, the political fallout from this situation has been relatively minor,” he added.
“Going forward, the failure to deliver on previous vaccine availability projections will make managing the swine flu message and communicating the threat an increasingly difficult challenge for President Obama and leaders in other countries that are rolling out large vaccination programs ... in the coming weeks.”
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has said she relied on estimates from the five contracted vaccine makers for the U.S. market — MedImmune, a unit of AstraZeneca, Sanofi-Aventis, Australia’s CSL, GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis.
“I think we certainly had hoped that their predictions on this would be correct,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.
“The president has been and is frustrated with ensuring that this vaccine is delivered on time and won’t be satisfied until those that want to be vaccinated from H1N1 have the opportunity through the vaccine to do so.”
Frieden said the situation was slowly improving.
“We are seeing more schools doing vaccine clinics. We are seeing more healthcare workers being vaccinated but it is still not nearly as available as we would like,” he said.
School-based vaccine clinics were hard work, he said.
“It’s hard to get the consent forms back,” Frieden said. “It is hard to arrange the logistics.”
But he said all the work would pay off.
“In future years as we try to increase seasonal flu vaccination, that’s the kind of infrastructure and experience that’s being established, that is an investment and will help us to address seasonal flu,” he said.
Editing by John O'Callaghan and Todd Eastham