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More than half of U.S. may get H1N1 this fall and winter, White House science panel says

sneazing womanThe H1N1 swine flu could kill as many as 90,000 Americans and land up to 1.8 million in the hospital, according to a report issued yesterday by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).

The findings are "not a prediction," the authors make clear, but rather "a plausible scenario" to help ready the country's government and health care system.

The advisors estimate that 40 to 60 percent of the U.S. population could contract the virus this fall and winter, compared with the average of 5 to 20 who get the seasonal flu. "The absolute number of deaths is expected to be at least as high, if not substantially higher than for the seasonal flu," simply because more people are likely to get the H1N1 swine flu than the seasonal flu, the authors write.

"It is not possible to predict how the 2009-H1N1 influenza virus or the upcoming influenza season will play out, but it is best that we plan and prepare for a resurgence," Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a prepared statement.

The advisory group recommends the selection of a White House staffer to oversee the coordination of the government's efforts to mitigate the flu's impact. A key goal will be "ensuring that the nation's complex and distributed healthcare systems are prepared to deal with the potential surge in demand, especially with respect to critical care," the group writes. The flu may send as many as 300,000 patients to intensive care units (ICU) filling between half and 100 percent of the country's ICU beds. Should the plausible scenario prove even marginally accurate, hospitals will find themselves squeezed, as about 80 percent of those beds are usually filled already by patients with other medical problems, according to the report.

Those in the medical community are aware of the sweeping challenges the H1N1 flu could present to the country. "This is going to be fairly serious," Harold Varmus, co-chair of PCAST, told The Washington Post. "It's going to stress every aspect of our health system."

Napolitano, whose position was named in the report as the suggested White House influenza coordinator, said, "H1N1 influenza has the potential to affect virtually every aspect of our lives, from our economy and national security to our education system."

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/WillSelarep

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