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Polls Show Public’s Attitude Towards H1N1

May 24, 2010

Numbers Show Declining Demand

This past year, Harvard’s School of Public Health (HSPH) was busily surveying public attitudes and behaviors concerning H1N1. In total, HSPH compiled eight surveys on the public’s response to H1N1. Their latest survey report released on May 19 combines all this data, along with 12 other surveys provided by news organizations and polling companies.

Trends in the range of polls show that Americans’ willingness to take preventative steps against H1N1—such as receiving the vaccine or practicing more stringent hygiene—were affected by factors such as levels of illness across the country, availability of vaccine, public attitudes and perception of vaccination, and communications initiatives by health officials.

Prevention campaigns launched at various government levels had encouraging measurable results. In the first weeks of the pandemic, almost two-thirds of Americans said they or someone in their family were practicing more stringent hygiene by washing their hands or using hand sanitizer more regularly.

The rates of vaccination nationwide were not as high. By mid-January, substantially fewer adults had received the vaccine than had expressed interest in receiving it between July and October. Of those who chose not to receive the vaccine, the main reasons were concern about its safety, belief that the vaccine could cause another illness, and distrust of the government.

By the winter, once flu season had begun to pass, demand for vaccine had dropped with the majority of those polled saying they were not concerned about getting sick. In October, the peak month of last year’s flu season, 51–59 percent of those polled were concerned about getting sick. This had dropped to only 40 percent by mid-December, when only 14 percent of adults had already received the vaccine.

Early Months Tested Public Health Capabilities

In the months leading up to the delivery of vaccine to state health departments across the country, many people were eagerly awaiting their chance to line up and roll up their sleeves. In the fall of last year, strong demand was felt by local health officials who were trying to meet the needs of their residents.

In some cases, local health officials expanded the reach of their work in order to make the vaccine as widely available as possible. One such story from last year comes from the Wilkes-Barre City Health Department in Pennsylvania, located along the Susquehanna River just a few hours from both Philadelphia and New York City.

The Wilkes-Barre City Health Department is typically responsible for just over 43,000 residents within its jurisdiction (according to 2000 Census numbers). But being the only municipal health department in the northeast section of Pennsylvania, they began offering vaccination services to non-residents when the H1N1 pandemic began.

“We were overwhelmed with limited staff—nursing and ancillary—and were challenged with non-residents arriving for vaccine within the high risk groups,” said Terry Kross of the Wilkes-Barre Department of Health.

Wilkes-Barre Health Department received a shipment of 1,000 doses of vaccine in October. According to Kross, no other clinics were planned in the area at the time, and very few other providers, hospitals, and healthcare providers had received shipments. One day last fall, three nurses with the department were able to dispense over 700 doses of H1N1 vaccine over the course of a ten-hour clinic.

Even still, the shipments arrived sporadically and Wilkes-Barre health officials had to borrow from surrounding municipalities to continue to run their initial clinics. Volunteer state nurses and paramedics were also called in for assistance in the few clinics scheduled during the first two weeks.

The health department was successful in immunizing individuals who fell under the high risk categories, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention''s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Some vaccine patients came from as far as bordering states of New York and New Jersey, alerted to the clinic schedules by the media and “word of mouth.”

Majority Approval of Government Response

This example demonstrates how the pandemic was such a difficult exercise for local health departments who stepped up to the challenge, carefully divvying up resources and staff. Their efforts may have contributed to the favorable view expressed by most people about the government’s response to H1N1. In January 2010, 59 percent of respondents to a HSPH poll said that the government had done a good to excellent job in responding to H1N1; 39 percent said the government’s performance was only poor to fair.

Related Links

May 19, 2010
New England Journal of Medicine: The Public''s Response to the 2009 H1N1 Influenza Pandemic

May 19, 2010
CIDRAP: Polls Traced Declining Interest in H1N1 Vaccine

May 19, 2010
Wall Street Journal: People Who Skipped H1N1 Vaccine Didn''t Think Flu Was Dangerous

May 19, 2010
New York Times: Reasons for Balking at Swine Flu Shot


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