WEDNESDAY, Oct. 4, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. health officials issued a plea Wednesday for the young and old alike to get their annual flu shots, but a new government survey suggests the American public might need some convincing.
"We anticipate having more influenza vaccine available this season than ever before," Dr. William Schaffner, vice president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, said at a news conference. "This makes an informed and educated public all the more important, to make sure the vaccine does not go unused. Vaccine that remains in the refrigerator cannot prevent influenza."
"We hope that this will not be an embarrassment of riches," he added. "Everyone who wants to be vaccinated should be."
For the first time this year, health authorities are recommending that children aged 23 months to 5 years be vaccinated against the flu. Other high-priority groups include children aged 6 to 23 months; anyone 50 years of age or older; people with chronic health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease or HIV; and health-care professionals, caregivers and people who have household contact with individuals at high risk. Last year, the percentage of fully vaccinated children was low, while the proportion of people aged 65 and older who got the flu shot fell from 68 percent in 2004 to 63 percent in 2005.
Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said 26 million doses of flu vaccine were distributed in September and another 50 million will go out in October. The extra supply is largely due to increased manufacturing capacity: This year four manufacturers instead of two are making the vaccine. A fifth may be added later in the season, if needed.
"The situation with flu vaccine this year is certainly better than it was two years ago," Gerberding said. During the 2004-05 season, the United States lost about half of its anticipated supply due to manufacturing problems.
Unfortunately, much of the American public remains lackadaisical about getting their annual flu shot, officials said. A survey by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) found that only about half plan to be vaccinated this season.
"We were alarmed to see that only about half said that they intended to get the influenza vaccine this year," said Dr. Susan Rehm, NFID's medical director. "The most common reason for not getting vaccinated was the perception that it is not severe enough to require immunization, and the perception that they were not at risk."
In fact, some 36,000 Americans die of the flu and its complications each year, while 200,000 are hospitalized. The very young, the very old and the chronically ill are among the most vulnerable, although anyone can be affected. Every year, at least 5 percent to 20 percent of the American public gets infected with the flu virus, said Dr. Daniel B. Jernigan, deputy director of the CDC's influenza division.
The majority of the survey respondents mistakenly thought December was too late to get vaccinated. "In reality, the flu peaks in December, January, February, or sometimes even in March. This means that getting vaccinated as early as is feasible [September through November] but well through January, possibly even into February if there is flu circulating, will still confer benefit," Rehm said.
About half of respondents also incorrectly believed that the vaccine could cause influenza. Only about half were aware of the potential importance of antiviral medications in both preventing and treating this illness.
The CDC currently recommends use of two antiviral medications, Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Relenza (zanamivir). Two other antivirals are not recommended because of high levels of resistance that emerged last season.
In addition to the flu shot, experts are advising that people aged 65 years and older, as well as individuals with underlying medical conditions, get the pneumococcal vaccine as well. Unlike the flu shot, which must be administered every year, this vaccine usually needs to be given just once in a lifetime.
"This vaccine is critical to anyone aged 65 and over," Schaffner said. "It is, after all, the most common bacterial cause of pneumonia and most common bacterial complication of influenza."
As always, Gerberding said, the flu season is unpredictable and vaccine doses will not be fully distributed until the end of the calendar year. In the meantime, there may be temporary bottlenecks in supply.
But overall, she emphasized, "we are not restricted by supply and would like to see the highest-ever vaccine rates, especially among seniors."
For more information on the flu and the flu vaccine, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.