A Painless Alternative to the Flu Shot

New nasal spray protects without a needle

SUNDAY, Oct. 19, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Hate the flu but hate flu shots too?

If you're in good health and between the ages of 5 and 49, there's a new, painless alternative for the coming flu season -- a nasal spray vaccine.

FluMist, approved this year by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, isn't for everyone. For instance, it's not recommended for older people who run the risk of other diseases -- such as pneumonia -- if they get the flu. And it isn't intended for those with compromised immune systems, such as AIDS or cancer patients.

But it is targeted for healthy children and adults who typically suffer through four or five miserable days of fever, headache, sore throat, congestion, tiredness and body aches that are hallmarks of the disease.

"So many people get [the flu] that whole aisles in the drugstore are full of flu medicines. And it costs about $3 billion annually in lost workdays," says Dr. James King, a University of Maryland pediatrician. "Furthermore, schools are a breeding ground" for the virus.

By getting the nasal vaccine in a doctor's office, King says, families that would otherwise miss work and school should be able to sail through the flu season, which runs from November through April.

King, who calls himself "very biased" in favor of the vaccine, headed up the clinical trials for FluMist, which is manufactured by MedImmune Inc., of Gaithersburg, Md.

He says it's easy to administer -- one spray on each nostril -- and has few side effects other than a runny nose, scratchy throat or a mild cold that lasts a day or so. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concurs.

What's more, King adds, the new vaccine is a pain-free alternative for children who can't stand shots. "Kids giggle. They don't cry," he says.

FluMist differs from the traditional flu vaccine because it is a live virus that has been weakened so it won't grow in the body, but will stimulate antibodies in the nose as well as the rest of the body. The traditional flu shot vaccine contains a dead virus that is injected into the muscles to stimulate germ fighters in the blood, King says.

Because of its components, FluMist isn't recommended for children under 5 or adults over 50; for those sensitive to any component of the vaccine, particularly eggs; for children or teens on aspirin therapy; for pregnant women; and for those with Guillain-Barré syndrome, asthma, or immune deficiencies.

Dr. Martin Baskin is a New York City internist and pulmonary specialist who administers approximately 1,500 flu shots a year, many of them to people 65 and older. He says FluMist's greatest contribution will probably be financial, not medical.

"This flu vaccine could potentially reduce the economic burden of influenza as a lot of young, healthy people miss work," he says. "It's beneficial for the business world."

FluMist's one drawback, both doctors say, is its cost -- approximately $45 compared to $7 to $10 for a flu shot. What's more, it isn't covered by insurance. And children under 9 must get two doses the first time they get the vaccine, necessitating two trips to the doctor's office.

But citing CDC statistics that say only 13 percent of healthy Americans ages 5 to 49 get an annual flu shot, FluMist's manufacturers think their product is a medication whose time has come.

"We aim to change the view of the flu," says Armando Anido, MedImmune's senior vice president of sales and marketing. "We want people to understand the burden of the flu, particularly in the healthy 5-to-49 age group, and that FluMist represents a significant advance in health care, with a new, needle-free delivery system."

Health officials says the best time to get a flu vaccine is October or November, although getting vaccinated in December or later can still protect you against the flu.

More information

For more information about the flu, visit the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Click here to read the FDA's statement announcing its approval of FluMist.

SOURCES: James King, M.D., professor, pediatrics, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore; Martin Baskin, M.D., clinical instructor, medicine, Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York City; Armando Anido, senior vice president, sales and marketing, MedImmune Inc., Gaithersburg, Md.
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