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H1N1 vaccine starts arriving in Ky. next week

Vaccine to protect against H1N1 flu should start arriving at local health departments in Kentucky next week, state health officials said Thursday, but it will be aimed first at health care workers and other priority groups.

Doses of nasal-spray vaccine will arrive first, with supplies of injectable H1N1 vaccine expected in about two weeks or possibly sooner, authorities said. Vaccine shipments will be small at first and then pick up steam, with large-scale public vaccinations probably not starting until November, state Department for Public Health officials said.

Meanwhile, Dr. William Hacker, the state public health commissioner, said there is no definitive word on whether H1N1, also called swine flu, figured in the death of a 13-year-old Caldwell County girl last week. The state medical examiner's office and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are reviewing the case, he said.

Debates about the safety of the H1N1 vaccine continue on the Internet and in other venues. But Hacker said H1N1 vaccine and seasonal flu vaccine, which millions take every year, are made essentially the same way.

"That's the reason why we have a high degree of confidence in terms of safety, and that's why I would recommend it to my family," he said.

The nasal-spray vaccine contains weakened, live flu virus and, therefore, cannot be used by some patients, such as pregnant women and those with underlying health problems or weakened immunity.

According to Hacker, Kentucky's first allocation of 24,300 nasal vaccine doses will go to 56 county and district health departments around the state, with each county getting at least 100 doses. Health departments then will distribute the medicine to doctors and other health care providers.

Officials said the vaccine initially will be aimed at health care workers younger than 50 who are in good health, healthy caregivers and people in the home who are 49 or younger and have close contact with children younger than 6 months, and healthy children and young adults ages 2 through 24.

Public health planners generally give health care workers top priority for both the nasal spray and injectable vaccines because they must be available to care for the sick.

The situation is complicated for other groups this year because both seasonal flu and H1N1 vaccines are being distributed. Since H1N1 mainly affects younger people, and older people are more at risk from seasonal flu, general priorities for the vaccines will vary by age.

"Senior citizens need to go to the head of the line for seasonal flu vaccine because they are at greater risk ... if they get seasonal flu," Hacker explained. "But ... for H1N1 vaccine, we need seniors to go to the back of the line and let their children and grandchildren go first."

The H1N1 vaccine is free, but patients might have to pay an administration fee when they get it, officials said.

Hacker says there will be enough of both vaccines to go around. Although some seasonal flu vaccine was available, the state's full order for seasonal vaccine might not be filled until November. He said that won't be a problem because season flu season won't start until late November or early December.

A private national health group has projected that more than 20,400 Kentuckians could need hospitalization if H1N1 hits 35 percent of the state's population. State officials say that's basically a "planning" estimate, and the actual number could depend on various factors.

The state public health department said it will launch a toll-free hotline next week that the public may call for flu and vaccine information. Questions will be answered by nurses.

"Based on what we're seeing so far, I believe we have adequate capacity in our hospital system to handle whatever needs come forward," Hacker said. "But we can't predict whether Mother Nature will change the virulence of the this virus and make it more challenging."