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Anthrax Fears Could Trigger Flu Shot Shortage

'There's not enough flu vaccine to immunize every American,' one manufacturer says.

SATURDAY, Oct. 27, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- If the anthrax scare makes you nervous about "flu-like symptoms," this might seem a good time to get immunized. The mayor of New York City, one epicenter of anthrax activity, thinks everybody in his city should, while the leading government health agency is sending out mixed messages on the subject.

But there could be a problem.

"Clearly, there's not enough flu vaccine to immunize every American," says Len Lavenda, spokesman for Aventis Pasteur, one of the three vaccine manufacturers.

And, he adds, there may be no way to make more in time if Americans' demand overruns this season's supply.

Even though some people line up as early as August for their annual shots, this year's flu vaccine shipments are only just beginning to arrive at clinics, doctors' offices, supermarkets, drug stores and other locations. An estimated 79 million doses, enough to vaccinate 28 percent of the U.S. population, are expected to be available.

But if there is an overrun on demand, Lavenda notes that manufacturers have never been asked to restart production, and the vaccines take months to grow.

Following a meeting with government officials, Lavenda said yesterday that his company has an additional 5 million doses that should be ready for shipping next month. But that still won't come close to covering everyone.

"There are things regulated by Mother Nature, not vaccine producers," he says. "Some things cannot be sped up."

He says that clinics normally have plenty of flu shots to spare and return them to the manufacturers, who include Wyeth Lederle and Powderject.

"Usually there's an oversupply. Every year, there's a considerable amount of vaccine that goes unused," he says.

But this year there will be no returns allowed, he adds, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allows doctors to swap vaccines with each other if some run short.

In the wake of anthrax attacks on Washington, D.C., and New York City, doctors and citizens are paying very close attention to so-called "flu-like symptoms," like fever, fatigue and aches. They could be signs of flu or other diseases, or they could signal that someone is infected with deadly inhalational anthrax.

According to news reports, a Washington D.C.-area postal worker went to an emergency room Oct. 21 with flu-like symptoms, was diagnosed with the flu and sent home. The man died the next day of inhalational anthrax, which is almost always fatal unless caught early and treated with antibiotics.

Right now, the chances of an average American developing anthrax remain extremely small. But New York City Mayor Rudoplh Giuliani and some doctors, including a medical adviser to ABC News, are advising that people get flu shots to avoid developing symptoms that may appear to be anthrax.

For the second year in a row, however, some flu vaccine shipments have been delayed, although officials say the situation shouldn't be as bad as in 2000. Manufacturers are purposely sending doses in batches so health providers don't use them up early.

Federal officials have been urging doctors to first vaccinate people at risk, including those older than 65 or those suffering from a variety of chronic diseases.

"Healthy people should wait and let the people who are at greatest risk of complications (from flu) get their shots," says Sandy Ross, immunization coordinator with California's San Diego County, which provides vaccinations for $2 each.

Healthy people may end up waiting until November, December or even 2002, Ross says. "It's not even too late in January, if flu hasn't yet hit in the community."

Flu shots become effective about two weeks after they are given, and the season for sickness usually peaks from January to March. The vaccines are designed differently each year, and the 2001 version protects against three flu strains.

A vaccination won't necessarily protect anyone from the flu or from flulike symptoms, which may be caused by a simple cold. If a person is stricken by the symptoms, alert doctors should be able to tell anthrax from the flu by ordering a test that detects influenza and by looking at chest X-rays, says Frank Myers, an epidemiologist with Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego.

Except for small numbers of people who are allergic to them, flu shots are a good idea for just about everyone, he says. "If the flu shot is offered to you, get it."

What To Do

Unless your doctor thinks he or she has enough vaccine for everyone, don't demand a flu shot if you're healthy. Wait until November or December.

Federal medical officials recommend that these people get vaccinated this month: those over the age of 65; residents of nursing homes; adults and children with chronic pulmonary and cardiovascular disease; those with metabolic diseases like diabetes, or a weakened immune system; those on long-term aspirin therapy; pregnant women in the second or third trimester; and all health care workers.

Do you have the flu or a cold? The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases may help you figure it out.

Get the latest on the flu vaccine from the CDC.

SOURCES: Interviews with Sandy Ross, immunization coordinator, San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency, California; Len Lavenda, spokesman, Aventis Pasteur, Swiftwater, Pa.; Frank Myers, CIC, epidemiologist, Scripps Mercy Hospital, San Diego
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