Change to H1N1 rules lauded

When 78-year-old Mary Ann Sokol found out that state public health officials decided Wednesday 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 who has been afraid to leave her home for fear of catching the virus, 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, Nevada’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," she said, explaining why public health officials expanded H1N1 vaccine availability to people 65 and older with chronic health conditions.

Until Wednesday’s decision was made — the new guideline takes effect Dec. 11 — 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 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 by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC officials said that Americans up to 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 the death rate was up to 20 percent for patients 50 and older, compared with about 2 percent for patients under 18.

On Wednesday the Southern Nevada Health District said a 55-year-old woman 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," Sokol’s 80-year-old husband, Ken, said. "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 distribution found that two states, Oklahoma and Tennessee, are presently vaccinating the elderly. Arkansas and Colorado plan to start doing so in the coming week.

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

Also, an H1N1 immunization clinic is set for 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. the following day.

Green said that shortly after the first of the year she expects there will be enough vaccine in the state to open up 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 pharasim@review or 702-387-2908.

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