Web Exclusive: Sebelius on Vaccine Fears

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius
Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius talks to "CBS Evening News" anchor Katie Couric July 30, 2009 about the H1N1, or swine flu, outbreak and some Americans' concerns that an H1N1 vaccine will not be safe.

Couric: Thimerosol, a preservative which was taken out of childhood vaccines a while ago, because there was fear it could be linked to autism, is being used in some batches of the H1N1 vaccine. Are you concerned that will keep some parents from having their children vaccinated?

Sebelius: Well, we want to make it clear that this is a voluntary vaccination program. But study after study, scientist after scientist, has determined that there really is no safety risk with thimerosol. There is concern about parents of why autism rates are rising. And, as you know, we've got some special NIH studies, thanks to the president, focused on just what is going on.

But thimerosol has been proven to be safe. It's used in seasonal vaccine-- seasonal flu vaccine. And, again, we want to assure people that that-- the scientists, again, have confirmed-- that there is really a safe factor with using thimerosol .It's an effective preservative and one that we think actually adds to the likelihood that we'll have a safe vaccine for a while to come.

Couric: As you know, there's a very small but passionate group of people who are convinced that childhood vaccines, in general, or the way they're scheduled, are connected to autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. Are you concerned there will be a backlash by that vocal group against this vaccine?

Sebelius: Well, I think what- what parents have to understand and, you know, I'm a mom and I know you're a mom - is certainly the safety and security our children is of primary importance. It's important to the president. And what we know is that this disease targets kids. So that we want parents to feel comfortable to get their children vaccinated, because, unfortunately, seasonal flu - year in and year out - kills 36,000 people. Hospitalizes a couple hundred thousand people. So we are taking every precaution. But based on the science. And the science, again, continues to indicate that the ingredients we're anticipating using in this vaccine are safe to use.

Tests will be done. We're going to listen to the science and not release a vaccine until we feel we've got the dosage right and that it's safe and effective for people to-- to be vaccinated. And-- again, children over age of six months-- young adults with underlying health condition, pregnant women, which-- who unfortunately are dying in larger numbers-- than in seasonal flu, are affected by this virus.

And we think it's important, certainly, for health care workers who will be coming in contact with ill people to be at the front of this line. So those are really the priority groups, along with caregivers and parents of infants under six months old. The infants aren't recommended to get the vaccination themselves. So we want to make sure that the caregivers who come in close proximity to those infants actually are at the front of the line for vaccinations.

Couric: Initially, you had said children between the ages of six months and 18 years. And I've noticed that you have extended that to age 24. Why?

Sebelius: Well, we're particularly concerned with students in college dormitory settings. There is evidence that, in college dorms-- and camp-like settings, this also continues to spread very rapidly. So the age increase really focuses on that target population, but certainly, at the age of 24, with anyone with underlying health conditions, again, is strongly recommended to get the vaccine, once it's available. And, again, we're targeting mid October. But, Katie, I think what we want to do is remind parents that there's a lot that could be done today as your child is getting ready to go back to school.

Teaching basic hygiene. Making sure that hand washing, which often doesn't happen in a school setting, is part of the daily routine. You know, wash your hands frequently. Cough into a handkerchief or a Kleenex or a sleeve. Don't use your hands to cover a cough and sneeze.

You, certainly, please keep your children home if they are sick. I know it's an inconvenience to miss work or find alternative-- daycare arrangements, but this virus spreads very, very quickly. Sending your child to school with the flu introduces the flu to all of his or her playmates and friends. And we're really trying to contain the flu as much as possible until we have an effective vaccine available.

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Couric: Since the vaccine won't be available, Madam Secretary, 'til mid October, are you worried about significant outbreaks happening when schools start in September?

Sebelius: Well, what we know is the virus hasn't gone away. We think we have about a million cases right now. Recently it was identified that some-- some kids who were here in Washington paging at the capital have caught the flu. And they are staying home and not introducing that flu to members of Congress who we need to continue to work hard until their August recess.

We know it has spread through summer camps. And it's likely to present itself when schools reopen. So, yes, there-- there are concerns, which is, again, why it's so important to take the basic steps of some isolization.

Don't get on an airplane. Don't send your child to school. Stay home yourself and try to limit how we spread this virus until, again, we have vaccines available. And then, hopefully, parents will feel comfortable about having their vaccinated, keeping them safe and secure as we continue on with the school year.