Seniors with chronic health problems can get swine flu shots starting next week

When 78-year-old Mary Ann Sokol found out that state public health officials decided today to allow seniors with chronic health conditions to get an H1N1 flu shot, she was more than pleased.

In fact, you might say the lung cancer and heart attack survivor freaked out.

“My gosh, that’s great,” she yelled into the phone. “I’m going to call Walgreens and see if they’ll get one ready for me. I hope they remember me. I’ve given them all my prescriptions for years.”

No group in Nevada, according to Dr. Tracey Green, the state’s chief health officer, has been more critical of the way the H1N1 vaccine has been distributed than seniors with underlying health problems.

“It’s a population that has been very vocal, plus we also see this as part of a national trend,” Green said, explaining why public health officials expanded H1N1 vaccine availability to people 65 and older with chronic health conditions.

Until today’s decision was made — the new guideline takes effect Dec. 11 — the vaccine was limited to five at-risk groups: pregnant women; caregivers for children younger than 6 months; health care and emergency personnel; those between 6 months and 24 years of age; and adults up to age 64 with chronic health conditions.

“They (seniors) are a group we’re very concerned about,” Green said.

State public health officials were following guidelines set down by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC officials pointed out that Americans up to age 24 are about 20 times more likely to contract the virus than people older than 25. They also said that, unlike with the seasonal flu, older people appeared to have a pre-existing immunity to the H1N1 virus.

But seniors pointed to studies that showed that although infants were most likely to be hospitalized for treatment because of swine flu, seniors who were hospitalized were most likely to die.

A recent California study showed that the death rate was up to 20 percent for patients 50 and older, compared with about 2 percent for patients younger than 18.

Also today, the Southern Nevada Health District announced that a 55-year-old woman with underlying medical conditions died of swine flu last week. That brings Clark County’s total H1N1-related deaths to 30. A 70-year-old female tourist with underlying health conditions was the first in Las Vegas to die from H1N1.

“It only stands to reason that older people who are suffering from conditions need the vaccine to fight off H1N1 flu just like the seasonal flu,” said Sokol’s 80-year-old husband, Ken. “I don’t like the movement against seniors in this country. It is very concerning.”

Nevada public health officials saw the risk to seniors as serious enough to make a change, Green said.

The CDC allows state officials to deviate from federal guidelines if they deem doing so is appropriate.

A recent study by the University of Michigan on H1N1 vaccine distribution found that two states, Oklahoma and Tennessee, have been vaccinating the elderly. Arkansas and Colorado plan to start doing so in the coming week.

The health district announced today that seniors who fall in the new expanded adult priority group can attend an immunization clinic at its 625 Shadow Lane location between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Dec. 11.

A clinic also will be held from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. the next day.

Green said that shortly after the first of the year, she expects there will be enough vaccine in the state to open the H1N1 vaccination program to everyone.

She said nearly 100,000 new doses of vaccine will be in Nevada next week. To date, the state has received just under 480,000 doses.

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at or 702-387-2908.