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Friday, Oct. 23, 2009

Q&A

Lowdown on H1N1 vaccinations


Staff writer

With swine flu inoculations now under way for medical workers, other people may be anxious about when it will be their turn. As cooler weather sets in, and with it higher risks of contracting the new H1N1 virus, the government is administering vaccinations on a priority basis, with healthy working-age adults getting their shots probably in the first few months of next year.

News photo
Needlework: A medical worker prepares a dose of swine flu vaccine Monday in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture. KYODO PHOTO

Here is some practical information on who will be inoculated when, and whether the vaccine is safe:

When will we be getting the vaccine?

About 1 million doctors and other medical workers are being vaccinated first. Most prefectures began the process earlier this week, while Hokkaido, Nara, Aichi, Shiga, Fukuoka and Kumamoto are starting Friday. Tokyo will begin Monday.

Next in line are 1 million pregnant women and 9 million people with specific chronic diseases. They will be inoculated starting next month, the health ministry says. The nation's 10 million children between the ages of 1 and 8 will receive it in December, while 2 million parents of infants are in line for January. This will be followed by children 9 and older and the elderly. A date has not yet been set for everyone else.

Getting an inoculation is voluntary. The government estimates it will have enough vaccine for 77 million people, assuming each person gets two shots.

Until the end of this year, only domestically produced vaccines will be used, of which the health ministry estimates it will have stocks for 27 million people. Imported vaccines, enough for 50 million people, will be used starting in January, the ministry says.

Does the vaccine prevent getting the new virus?

No, but similar to the vaccine for seasonal flu, it will keep the damage to a minimum and prevent deaths or serious complications, according to the Infectious Disease Surveillance Center in Tokyo.

Will there be any side effects?

About 5 percent to 10 percent of those inoculated could contract a fever, headache, shivering or fatigue lasting for two to three days, assuming the new vaccine has effects similar to the seasonal flu vaccine, the health ministry's Web site says.

How many shots will you need?

The health ministry announced Tuesday that medical workers in their 20s through 50s will only need one, while children aged 1 to 12 will require two.

The other priority groups, including pregnant women, parents of infants and those with underlying illnesses, will also be given two shots, but this will be reassessed after further test results come in December and after, according to media reports.

This is an overruling of advice given by medical experts earlier this month that, like seasonal flu vaccine, one shot is enough for people aged 13 and above. Additional experts who joined the discussion Monday said that at this stage it is not possible to confirm whether one shot is enough for those at higher risk, the reports said.

Is it safe for pregnant women to get the vaccine?

Both the World Health Organization and Japanese experts say it is, and that any minor side effects are outweighed by the health risks of not being inoculated.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pregnant women who contracted the H1N1 virus have had early labor or severe pneumonia, resulting in some deaths.

The Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology says that because the new vaccine is manufactured in a similar way to the vaccine for conventional flu, the risks are also the same.

"The vaccine for the seasonal flu has been taken by 600,000 pregnant women without any major problems or risk to the mother or the baby," the group's Web site says.

Who should avoid the vaccine, or be careful when getting it?

People who clearly have a fever or are seriously ill, or who have previously had an allergic reaction to the ingredients of the vaccine, should steer clear, the health ministry says.

Those with underlying illnesses and those who have suffered convulsions in the past or are allergic to chicken eggs or meat should consult their doctor.

People who have been confirmed to have already had swine flu do not need to take the vaccine, according to the health ministry.

Is it safe to be administered the seasonal flu vaccine and the new vaccine at the same time?

Yes, at least as far as the domestically produced vaccine goes, according to the health ministry. But more research needs to be done to see whether the same is true for the imported vaccine, the government says.

How much will it cost?

The fee is ¥3,600 for the first shot and ¥2,550 for the second. The government plans to subsidize the cost for households that are exempt from paying the municipal tax, which will cover a third of the population.

How long does the vaccine take to kick in?

The health ministry estimates it will have a similar time span as the seasonal flu vaccine, taking effect from two weeks after inoculation and lasting up to five months, with the peak strength at one month.

Where should you go for advice on the vaccine?

Those who wish to be inoculated should contact their local municipal offices for their individual schedules, although specific dates and locations may not yet be available. Alternatively, you can go to your regular hospital, or a public health center or hospital in your district.

For regional information in English, contact the call centers for foreigners set up by prefectures, which offer general advice on living in Japan. Tokyo residents can call Metropolitan Medical Institution Information at (03) 5285-8181. Elsewhere in the Kanto region, contact (045) 314-9917 in Kanagawa, (043) 297-2966 in Chiba and (048) 833-3296 in Saitama.

Kyoto residents should call (075) 342-0088, and Osaka residents (06) 6773-6533. For advice in Fukuoka, contact (092) 725-9200.

All take calls during business hours on weekdays.

The health ministry is planning to start up a phone line for vaccine-related information in English by the end of this month, according to a spokesman at its infectious diseases division.

Tokyo has yet to decide whether to open a phone line for vaccine-related information, according to a spokeswoman at the Tokyo Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health. For online information on the vaccine, visit the health ministry's Web site at www.mhlw.go.jp/english/topics/influenza_a/index.html

The health ministry's call center for consultations about swine flu is (03) 3501-9031, although it does not provide information in English.



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