Thursday, August 13, 2009

Q&A: Swine flu vaccination

The government has unveiled its vaccination programme.

A number of priority groups have been identified and the process should start in October.

What is the current status of the vaccine?

Doses of the vaccine have already been produced. The UK has 300,000 doses from the two firms it has contracts with.

Human trials are now getting under way and if they go well regulators could approve the jabs by the end of September.

Like seasonal flu vaccines, the jabs can be licensed under a fast-track procedure.

The vaccines have already been tested with a different strain of flu and proven to be safe.

So they just need limited testing with the correct strain to get the green light.

This means the process can take just a month or so, unlike new drugs which can take years to get approval.

How have the priority groups been identified?

The government's official vaccination experts have been studying at the evidence about swine flu for the past few months.

The health service just does not have enough capacity to administer the two shots of the swine flu vaccine needed to give protection to everyone in time for the winter.

So, instead, the government has announced a list of priority groups.

These are mainly people who are most at risk of complications or, in the case of health and social care workers, the people who are most likely to come into contact with the virus.

Many had thought all children would be immunised as they have been getting the infection in the highest numbers.

But the experts decided against such a mass programme as the overwhelming majority of those developing complications were the children with serious health problems.

How does this compare to the seasonal flu programme?

The initial first wave of the vaccination programme is not that different from the average seasonal flu vaccination group.

Only pregnant women and those living with people with immune system problems, such as people with HIV or those receiving chemotherapy treatment, will be getting the swine flu jab without also receiving the seasonal flu one.

The government hopes to be able to combine vaccinations for people who need both.

How will the swine flu vaccine be administered?

The government is still in negotiation with GPs about how the programme will be delivered.

But the vaccine requires people to be given two doses, three weeks apart.

That would mean the first phase of the programme will take until at least early December to complete.

Will everyone be vaccinated?

It is not clear. The government said it will make a decision on this during the winter.

It will eventually have enough vaccine for the whole population, but in most cases it has remained a relatively mild infection.

However, Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson has warned that it could still become more deadly and while the death toll remains low, a fifth of cases have involved previously healthy people.

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