WASHINGTON - The Defense Department has started receiving H1N1 vaccines and will begin distributing doses in the coming weeks.
The Health and Human Services Department is distributing the vaccines, manufactured by four producers, to the department. Because rates of production vary among the manufacturers, supplies are expected to be limited initially, but to increase over time, said Ellen P. Embrey, acting assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.
The department "is working closely with HHS to receive its full allocation of vaccine as soon as possible," Embrey said. Vaccinations are mandatory for military members, and as the quantity of doses on hand grows, officials anticipate Defense Department facilities will receive sufficient numbers to make the vaccine available to all of the department's employees and beneficiaries, she said.
Meanwhile, Defense Department officials have implemented a plan to maintain mission readiness while ensuring those at greatest risk get vaccinated as soon as possible. Vaccines first will be made available to deployed personnel, bases that receive new military accessions, such as basic training installations and the service academies, and all health-care workers assigned to military medical treatment facilities.
Department providers should balance mission requirements with guidelines laid out by the Centers for Disease Control in determining who should receive vaccine when supplies are limited, Embrey said.
The arrival of the vaccines comes as CDC officials underscore the importance of remaining vigilant amid the rising incidence of flu nationwide.
"I would reiterate that we have more virus, more vaccine, and we have more treatment," CDC Director Thomas Frieden told reporters at an Oct. 30 news conference in Atlanta. "We encourage the prompt treatment of people who have underlying conditions."
CDC officials have identified groups they consider at a high risk of developing severe illness if they contract the flu: pregnant women, household contacts and caregivers for children younger than 6 months, health-care and emergency medical services personnel, people between 6 months and 24 years of age, then those between 25 and 64.
President Barack Obama is "deeply concerned" about H1N1, Frieden said.
"He's directly involved, he's briefed regularly, he asks a series of important and relevant questions, and he wants to make sure that we are doing absolutely everything we possibly can to respond effectively as we can," he said.
In determining how to distribute supplies, Embrey said, military commanders, in collaboration with their medical authorities, will determine the best method to allocate the vaccine when demand exceeds supply. As more vaccine is received, it will be made available to all active-duty servicemembers, civilian employees, members of military reserve components and National Guard personnel.
Immunization for both seasonal flu and H1N1 is mandatory for all military personnel and is highly recommended for beneficiaries. When the first cases of H1N1 were diagnosed in April, a defense official said, the department bought 2.7 million doses of the vaccine for mission-assurance purposes.
HHS later provided 1 million doses to the Defense Department, raising the number to 3.7 million, according to Dr. Robert Morrow, the preventive medicine programs and policy officer for the Bureau of Navy Medicine and Surgery's force health protection function.
In addition to vaccines being received for operational personnel, Defense Department medical treatment facilities are receiving vaccine for family members based upon a separate allocation to each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Officials also have completed an agreement with HHS to provide vaccine for family members living outside the United States.
Vaccine for family members, like that for the active-duty and civilian work force, will arrive at military medical treatment facilities incrementally, Embrey said.