Every fall, we deal with new strains of seasonal flu. But this year, we'll also confront a potentially serious flu virus that first appeared last spring. While scientists won't know exactly how strong the 2009 H1N1 flu will be until the middle of the flu season, they're warning it could cause more illness as our kids return to school.
We don't need to wait to act. In the fight against flu, preparation is more than half the battle - and we need everyone to chip in.
We in the federal government have been aggressively responding to the new H1N1 since April. We're building on what we learned from the early spring season and from health officials in the southern hemisphere, where flu seasons are already under way.
In addition to preparing the seasonal flu vaccine as usual, government scientists and vaccine manufacturers are working around the clock to produce a vaccine to protect people from the new H1N1 flu virus. And we're making good progress on both fronts - the seasonal flu vaccine is ready for distribution, and we're on track to have an H1N1 vaccine by mid-October.
We're also working closely with cities, states and across government agencies to make sure we have a rapid, coordinated response this fall. In the last few months, we've sent more than $350 million in federal grants to states, tribes, territories and hospitals to help them strengthen their flu response.
In early July, the Departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security and Education held a flu summit for governors and public health officials. Just this week, we hosted another summit for mayors and county officials and webcast it on flu.gov - which has become the best place to find up-to-date information about flu.
Our agencies are working with the Department of Agriculture to make sure children will have access to healthy meals if their schools close and with Departments of Commerce and Labor to reach people at work. The Obama administration has briefed members of Congress at a special bi-cameral, bipartisan session. And HHS has worked with members - Republicans and Democrats - on "prevent the flu" public service announcements to air in August when they're home.
But federal government efforts won't be enough. The lines of defense against the flu need to reach into every living room and kitchen.
This new H1N1 is not the flu we're used to. It was just getting started when our flu season should have been ending. While anyone can get sick, the pattern of infection is unusual. It hasn't yet affected many seniors, but it spreads rapidly among otherwise healthy kids up to college age. Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to observe higher levels of flu-like illness than normal for this time of year.
But there's one way in which the 2009 H1N1 flu isn't different: it can still send you to the hospital with fever, cough, sore throat, headache, chills and fatigue, and sometimes, diarrhea and vomiting. For the worst cases, it's still deadly. And it's especially dangerous for people with chronic illnesses such as asthma, heart disease or diabetes, and for women who are pregnant.
Until a vaccine arrives in October, prevention is our best defense. That means we all need to make sure we wash our hands frequently with soap and water, cough or sneeze into a tissue, and stay home from work or school if we're sick.
It also means planning ahead. Parents should talk to their employers and make child care arrangements in case their kids get sick. And if a school closes, learning shouldn't stop. Schools need to create opportunities to learn online and work with parents to find ways for students to bring textbooks and other resources home.
If you're an employer, you should plan to get by with a reduced staff. You don't want an employee who's ill to spread flu in the workplace. If you're a medical provider, you should plan to handle more calls and patient visits. An outbreak will bring people who have flu and people who have flu-related symptoms or concerns into your office.
To help people get ready for flu season, we've created a "one-stop" Web site - www.flu.gov. You'll find tips to prevent and respond to an outbreak and checklists and fact sheets that will help families, businesses and others get prepared.
We got a head start on the flu season by beginning our preparations this spring. But the next few months will have the biggest impact on how the upcoming flu season plays out. Widespread, determined, and sustained efforts are needed to prevent the spread of flu and reduce the harm it causes. Let's get to work.
Kathleen Sebelius is the U.S. secretary of health and human services. Janet Napolitano is secretary of homeland security. Arne Duncan is secretary of education.