Rap song is part of a clear, creative communication effort about H1N1

The 2009 H1N1 outbreak started last April — just as the regular flu season was ending.  After a summer of elevated influenza activity levels, we’re now seeing as many flu cases in September as we do when flu season normally peaks later in the fall and winter.

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Currently, 21 states report widespread flu activity, and 98 percent of this is the H1N1 virus. Visits to doctors have increased nationwide over the past five weeks, which is unusual for this time of year. And just as we saw in the spring and summer, it’s primarily children and young adults who are getting sick.

The departments of Health and Human Services, Education, Homeland Security, Commerce, and Labor have issued guidelines specifically for childcare providers, K-12 schools, colleges, and both small and large businesses to help prevent the spread of flu among students, employees, and customers. 

Now we’re working hard to make sure this information reaches the intended audiences. HHS has partnered with over 1,200 different organizations to distribute flu information. The Department of Education has reached out directly to the more than 14,000 school districts in America as well as hundreds of their key stakeholders to keep information flowing. And almost 50 members of Congress have aired their own flu-prevention public service announcements.

A “viral” video contest that ended Sept. 22 will help us get the word out to teens and young adults.

Earlier this summer, HHS invited anyone over age 14 — that is, with a camcorder, a digital camera, or even an iPhone — to produce a video public service announcement on preventing the spread of the H1N1 flu virus.

Entries were posted on YouTube, and the public voted for their favorite PSA. This probably isn’t the sort of public health campaign you’d expect from the federal government, but H1N1 is not the sort of flu we’ve seen in recent years.

The winning video featured Dr. John Clarke of Baldwin, N.Y., doing the “H1N1 Rap” in his white doctor’s coat and sunglasses. We’re looking forward to spreading Dr. Clarke’s prevention lesson across the Web and on broadcast and cable television channels, but outreach through new media is only one approach.

The federal government is also working with governors, mayors, state and local health departments, the medical community, and the private sector. So far, we’ve distributed more than $350 million in federal grants to states, tribes, territories and hospitals, including approximately $260 million in grants for Public Health Emergency Response and $90 million for Hospital Preparedness.

We’re preparing for a range of outbreak conditions. Every action we take will be based on science, including a nationwide H1N1 vaccination campaign.

The FDA has just licensed four vaccines against H1N1, all of which are manufactured using the same process used for seasonal flu vaccine, which has a long track record of safety. All have been tested rigorously in both government and manufacturers’ clinical trials.

The full-scale H1N1 vaccination program will begin in early October. Healthy people between the ages of 10 and 64 will need only one dose of the vaccine, while children under 10 will need two doses of the vaccine.

According to the federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, pregnant women; healthcare workers; children and young adults from 6 months to 24 years old; those who care for infants under 6 months, and adults who have underlying health conditions should get the vaccine as soon as it’s available. If people who are at higher risk for complications have flu symptoms, they should consult with their doctors about taking antiviral medicine.

Meanwhile, we’ll have more than 250 million doses of vaccine on hand, more than enough for every person — at-risk or not — who wants to be vaccinated in this voluntary campaign.

And while we’re focusing on H1N1, we can’t lose sight of the regular seasonal flu.  Seasonal flu is still a concern, especially for older Americans. Complications of seasonal flu kill 36,000 people annually. If you’re 50 or older, or at risk of complications, you should get your seasonal flu vaccine now.

Because it will take several months for all the H1N1 vaccine to be distributed nationwide, preventing flu is even more critical until vaccine becomes available in your community.  So make sure to wash your hands, cover coughs and sneezes, and stay home if you’re sick. These are simple measures everyone should do.

For additional information, go to www.Flu.gov.  The website has up-to-date information about what you can do to prevent, prepare for, and respond to an outbreak. And if you haven’t seen the “H1N1 Rap” on the airwaves or YouTube yet, look for it now on Flu.gov.

Sebelius, Duncan and Napolitano are the secretaries of Health and Human Services; Education; and Homeland Security, respectively.