PHOENIX — Nearly a fourth of Maricopa County residents, or about 900,000 people, have been immunized against the new swine flu, according to estimates released this week. But now that the vaccine is finally available to anyone who wants it, public-health officials are noticing a drop-off in demand.
The growing complacency about the novel flu virus is likely the result of multiple factors, experts say.
The illness is spreading more slowly than it was earlier this fall, people are preoccupied with the holidays, and surveys suggest that many people are still concerned about the vaccine's safety. The growing apathy worries public-health officials, who predict the H1N1 virus will re-emerge and cause another round of widespread illness in the coming months, during what is typically the peak flu season.
"There's no question about it. It's probably not a very good thing to see this complacency because if we get a third wave, we could potentially get into trouble" with a lot of people getting sick, said Valley physician Art Mollen of the Mollen Immunization Clinics, a firm involved in immunizing children and adults in schools and retail outlets around the country.
Swine flu has hospitalized 1,637 Arizonans and been linked to 133 deaths in the state since emerging in April.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that roughly 60 million Americans, about 19 percent of the nation's population, have gotten vaccinated against the illness. About 23 percent of Maricopa County's 3.95 million residents have been vaccinated. The CDC urged the public to get the vaccine.
"The time to act is in the days and weeks ahead," said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC's National Center for Immunizations and Respiratory Diseases. "Just because a lot of people are taking off for the holidays doesn't mean this flu will."
The message is far different from the one issued two months ago, when the country's immunization program was getting off to a slow, rocky start. Back in October, shots were scarce, but the disease was rampant. Demand for the vaccine was strong, with lines forming at public clinics and doctors offices around the country. Officials urged patience.
But now, more than 111 million doses of vaccine are available nationally, and only a few states are seeing widespread illness.
That's true locally, where the number of new cases has declined steadily since its late October peak.
Meanwhile, Maricopa County has been allocated nearly 1.2 million doses, meaning that there is a surplus supply of about 287,000 doses right now.
"Human behavior is hard to predict," said Jeanene Fowler, a spokeswoman for Maricopa County's Public Health Department.
"Once we start seeing more illness, people might run out and start getting it again.
"We are definitely going to come back after the January 1 holiday with another push."
One group that has continued to show strong interest in getting vaccinated is seniors.
The elderly traditionally have higher vaccination rates than other age groups, and mass immunizers say seniors have been showing up at clinics in good numbers since the H1N1 shots were opened up to the general public last week.
"I would say there has been lower interest (in general) than I expected, partly because we are in the holiday season right now," said Ted Hedberg, vice president of Healthwaves, which offers swine-flu shots at retail outlets and via employer-immunization programs. "But we have had a lot of seniors come out," he added.
A new survey, released Tuesday by researchers at Harvard University, suggests that public-health officials will need to continue to work to sell the vaccine to other skeptical residents and parents.
The Harvard poll, conducted Dec. 16 and 17, indicated that 55 percent of the 1,600 adults surveyed did not want the vaccine. The poll sample included 400 parents and had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points. About 35 percent of them said they wouldn't immunize their children. Concerns about safety were among the top reasons cited by those who opted against it.
Maria Huth, a Gilbert mother of four, has struggled with whether to immunize her kids against the virus. Among her concerns is that the vaccine is new and was developed quickly.
"I kept going back and forth and ultimately decided not to get it," Huth said. "I knew a lot of families that had the swine flu, and it didn't seem that bad."
Schuchat and other health officials emphasized that the H1N1 vaccine is safe. It was developed using the same process as the seasonal-flu vaccine, and extensive checks have not turned up any trend of adverse effects among those who were immunized.
There have been two recalls of vaccines so far, the most recent coming on Tuesday, when drugmaker Medimmune recalled 5 million doses of its nasal spray because it appears to lose potency over time.
As with a similar recall last week by another vaccine maker, most of the doses already had been distributed by the time the problem was discovered, and officials said the revocation had nothing to with the vaccine's safety.
"We've intensified our safety monitoring, and we're not seeing any worrisome signs," Schuchat said.