Behind the unproven H1N1 flu vaccine Wed, Aug 26, 2009. A new estimate showed that up to 90,000 Americans could die of H1N1 in the upcoming season; and a simultaneous report that the government was taking some unprecedented steps to get a vaccine ready in time. But the fatality numbers are more complicated — and less alarming — than they seem; and the vaccine report is less a reason for alarm than a sign of smart epidemiological planning.

“We can’t yet predict what proportion of the population will be infected,” says Dr. Harold Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York and former director of the National Institutes of Health.

“But it is very likely that something upward of 50% will be affected. All of us have a responsibility to blunt the epidemic by decreasing the spread of virus. If people understand that they can mitigate the epidemic by washing their hands and staying home when they are sick, it means the peak of disease will occur later, when there is more vaccine available.” That could also help to keep the impact of H1N1—on the health care system, on families and on the economy in the form of fewer sick days — to a minimum.

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