WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Doctors and minorities still have a dangerous mistrust of vaccines that became painfully clear during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said on Monday.
But she said the United States had “unprecedented” levels of flu vaccination for the past season and pointed to nearly $500 million in government funding to improve decades-old influenza vaccine technology.
“We shouldn’t have to convince health providers that vaccines are safe and that they work. But, despite the fact that we had more health providers than ever getting vaccinated last year, there was still a sizable number who did not,” Sebelius told a meeting of vaccine experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
In an average year, fewer than 40 percent of doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers get flu vaccines. “Tell them to get vaccinated,” Sebelius urged her audience.
Even though 90 million doses of influenza vaccine had been administered of the 162 million doses shipped across the country, minorities often got left out, Sebelius said. “Too many people in these communities still don’t believe that vaccines are safe, or even that they work,” she said.
“But with so many African Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, and others experiencing rising rates of chronic disease, not getting vaccinated is many times more dangerous than even the perceived threat of the vaccine.”
The CDC estimates that H1N1 has killed 12,000 Americans and put more than 265,000 in hospital. People with chronic diseases such as asthma or diabetes, pregnant women and children were at highest risk.
As soon as the virus was identified one year ago, the CDC started working to get a vaccine made with the five U.S. influenza vaccine makers — Novartis, AstraZeneca unit MedImmune, Sanofi Aventis, GlaxoSmithKline and Australian vaccine maker CSL.
Early in the pandemic, there were long lines of people clamoring for H1N1 vaccines but there was not enough to go around. By the time vaccines were available in ample supplies, most of the public had lost interest.
Sebelius admitted making mistakes — especially by telling Americans that anyone who wanted a vaccine would be able to get one and by projecting quick production of 250 million doses.
“One of the ‘teachable’ moments from this past flu season was on the communications front,” she said.
“We wanted to make sure the American people knew what we knew when we knew it, but we raised expectations too high.”
Nonetheless, she claimed success.
“Combined with the more than 100 million people who got a seasonal flu vaccine, we’ve had unprecedented levels of immunization during the 2009-2010 flu season,” she said.
Sebelius said some success cannot be measured — such as an education campaign about how flu and other viruses spread.
“When you see someone in the grocery store coughing into their sleeve, a parent who keeps a child home when he’s sick, or someone at work disinfecting her keyboard, you can take a little of the credit for that, too,” she told the CDC workers.
Reporting by Maggie Fox; Editing by Cynthia Osterman