In 2009, the H1N1 flu virus circled the globe, sickening and killing thousands of people. Though the World Health Organization announced that the virus was a pandemic in June 2009, in the U.S., widespread vaccination campaigns didn't occur until about nine months later. By that time, many people had already spent a week coughing on the couch, recovered, and developed immunity to the virus.
After observing these delays, Stanford researchers Nayer Khazeni, MD, and Douglas K. Owens, MD, wanted to know when is the best time to vaccinate to save lives, reduce infections and lower health-care costs. They used the U.S. response to the 2009 pandemic to create a computer model that simulated how a more deadly flu pandemic would move through a metropolis like New York City.
In their paper, which appears in Annals of Internal Medicine, the researchers found that if a city could vaccinate its residents six months after the start of an outbreak, instead of nine, it could stop more than 230,000 infections and prevent the deaths of 6,000 people. The city could also save $51 million in hospital bills for infected individuals.
It takes about six months for scientists, public health officials and vaccine companies to create and distribute a new flu vaccine. Most vaccines are still grown in chicken eggs! But newer technologies that use cell cultures or genetic engineering to create vaccines may soon shorten the wait to just four months. Shaving off those two months would almost double the savings, in terms of both lives and health-care dollars, they found.
Even if the city can't vaccinate until nine months into an outbreak, residents can slow the virus' spread by staying home when sick, wearing a face mask, hand washing, and in severe cases, even closing down schools and public transportation. These low-tech methods can buy the residents time while they are waiting for a vaccine to become available.
Previously: Could self-administered flu vaccine patches replace injections? Text message reminders shown effective in boosting flu shot rates among pregnant women and Working to create a universal flu vaccine
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