Flu Shot Priorities Outlined

Government to first target high-risk groups, which now include hurricane survivors

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 14, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- As the flu season approaches, medical groups and the U.S. government are urging every eligible person to get a flu shot.

This year, flu vaccine will be made available first to those in high-risk groups, such as people 65 and over, those with autoimmune diseases and people with chronic conditions, pregnant women and health-care workers.

In addition, Hurricane Katrina evacuees living in shelters will also be given top priority.

The recommendations were presented at a news briefing Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

Flu vaccine will be made available to the rest of the public starting on Oct. 24, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"This gives us a good month to concentrate on the people who need the vaccine the most," said CDC Director Dr. Julie L. Gerberding. "This ensures people across our country that, after that point, vaccine will be made available."

Hurricane Katrina survivors are now considered priority patients and will receive flu vaccine along with other high-risk groups, Gerberding added.

"If there is any population that deserves first access to the vaccine, it is the people who have already gone through so much difficulty," she said.

This year's vaccine contains three strains of flu, H1, H3 and one B strain, Gerberding said. As far as avian flu is concerned, Gerberding said there is no ability to predict its transmission from person to person.

"There is more avian flu virus in Asia moving westward than we have ever seen before," she added. "However, there is still no evidence of person-to-person transmission."

But the CDC is putting a high priority on taking steps just in case of an avian flu outbreak. These steps include working on and stockpiling a vaccine and other antiviral medications, Gerberding said.

Flu takes a tremendous toll every year, added Dr. William Schaffner, from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. "Influenza is responsible for 200,000 hospitalizations and 36,000 deaths annually in the United States," he said.

In light of last year's scramble to get enough flu shots once one key manufacturer's production was halted due to contamination problems, this year the supply is expected to reach more than 90,000,000 doses from four drugmakers.

In addition, Medicare has raised the reimbursement to doctors for flu vaccine from $10.10 last season to $12.06, according to Dr. Mark B. McClellan, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Medicare has also ruled that nursing homes must make flu vaccine available to all residents. "Our goal is for 90 percent of nursing home residents to get the flu vaccine," McClellan said.

Should there be a vaccine shortage this year, the CDC will make allocation plans for what is available, said Dr. Jeanne Santoli, the associate director of science at the CDC's Immunization Services Division.

Dr. Henry Bernstein, of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Infectious Diseases, stressed the importance of vaccinating children over 6 months to 23 months of age, and older children with chronic conditions.

"Infants and toddlers under 2 years of age and children with certain medical conditions, such as asthma and diabetes, are at the highest risk of complications if they get the flu," Bernstein said.

Moreover, Dr. Artis D. Hoven, a member of the American Medical Association's board of trustees, stressed that to prevent the spread of flu, all health-care workers should get vaccinated. "Health-care facilities should make it as convenient as possible for health-care workers to receive the vaccine," she said.

One expert thinks that getting a flu shot serves two purposes: Preventing flu, and getting people used to vaccination in case of an outbreak of more serious disease, such as avian flu.

"It's important to get vaccinated, especially for people who are vulnerable to the complications of flu, said Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine.

"It's important to vaccinate as many people as possible to interrupt transmission of the flu, because we are facing a more dangerous strain of the flu," Katz added.

Getting accustomed to vaccination is a crucial public health measure to forestall an outbreak of bird flu when it happens, Katz said.

"It will," he added. "It's not a question of whether -- it's a question of when."

More information

The CDC can tell you more about flu.

SOURCES: Sept. 14, 2005, news conference with Julie L. Gerberding, M.D., M.P.H., director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Mark B. McClellan, M.D., Ph.D., administrator, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Washington, D.C.; Jeanne Santoli, M.D., M.P.H., associate director, science, Immunization Services Division, National Immunization Program, CDC; Henry Bernstein, D.O., Committee on Infectious Diseases, American Academy of Pediatrics, Chicago; Artis D. Hoven, M.D., board of trustees, American Medical Association, Chicago; William Schaffner, M.D., National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, and chairman, department of preventive medicine, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Nashville, Tenn.; David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director, Prevention Research Center, and associate clinical professor, public health, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn.
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