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Flu Is Due; So Are Lots of Shots

But vaccine availability should still go to the vulnerable first, say health officials

THURSDAY, Sept. 27, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- With the flu virus percolating quietly in scattered states across the nation, disease officials reiterated their call for healthy Americans to allow more vulnerable people first access to the vaccine as it arrives.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it expects the nation's three flu shot makers to produce 79 million doses of vaccine this year, but the batches won't be readily available until sometime in October. Even then, only about 56 percent of doses will be shipped by the end of the month, officials say. The rest will come in November and December when virus activity typically peaks.

A new report from the CDC shows sporadic reports of both influenza A and B strains this summer, with B predominating. Confirmed cases of flu cropped up in Alaska, Michigan, Missouri, Texas and Hawaii.

Each year flu kills about 20,000 people in this country. Although the vaccine is an important line of defense against the virus, it doesn't offer a guarantee against infection.

In July, before vaccine availability was clear, disease officials had recommended that the most vulnerable people -- nursing home residents, people over 65, pregnant women and people of any age with lung or heart problems or weakened immune systems -- get vaccinated as early as September. That plan has been pushed back a few weeks.

"As soon as the vaccine becomes available, those at high risk should proceed with getting it," says Curtis Allen, a CDC spokesman. Allen says people who want to get immunized should call their doctor or local health department to find out whether the flu shots have arrived.

Under the vaccination guidelines released in July, flu shots should be made available in November for those who come into contact with high-risk people, those who are between the ages of 50 and 64, and others who'd like to reduce their risk of catching the disease. The last wave of injections are intended for everyone else, but particularly high-risk groups that missed the first two rounds.

Len Lavenda, a spokesman for vaccine maker Aventis Pasteur Inc., says the Swiftwater, Pa., firm is on schedule with its delivery plan and has already begun shipping doses of its Fluzone product to doctors and other providers. By tomorrow, he says, Aventis will have distributed 25 percent of the 44 million doses it intends to produce this year.

"The CDC recommendations start in October, but there is quite a bit of vaccine already out there," Lavenda says.

Lavenda blamed last year's delays in vaccine availability in part on the withdrawal from the market of Parkdale Pharmaceuticals, one of the then-four flu shot makers, just months before the virus season began.

"Obviously we knew that Parkdale was not coming back, so we expanded capacity by about 20 percent over last year to fill in the void left by their departure," Lavenda says.

What To Do

For more on the flu vaccine situation, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the CDC's National Immunization Program.

If you want to see where the flu is hitting right now, check out the FluWatch.

SOURCES: Interviews with Curtis Allen, spokesman, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Len Lavenda, spokesman, Aventis Pasteur, Swiftwater, Pa.; Sept. 28, 2001, CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
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