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Flu Vaccine Plentiful This Year

Officials urge 'at-risk' individuals to get vaccinated

MONDAY, Oct. 7, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- If you're hoping to escape the misery of the flu this year, health officials have good news for you.

Unlike the last two years, there is no predicted shortage of flu vaccine, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona announced today at a joint press conference with the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) and the National Coalition for Adult Immunization.

"There is plenty of vaccine available at this time," said NFID director Dr. William Schaffner. "There are no manufacturing or regulatory issues this year, though the official recommendations are that people who are at highest risk should be vaccinated first."

Influenza, more commonly known as the flu, is a viral illness that causes an abrupt onset of symptoms such as fever, muscle aches, sore throat, cough, runny nose and headache. Complications can include secondary infections, such as bacterial pneumonia.

According to Carmona, influenza and pneumococcal disease together are the fifth leading cause of death in the United States. Flu is responsible for more than 20,000 deaths and over 100,000 hospitalizations every year. Ninety percent of those deaths occur in people over age 65, according to the Surgeon General.

There are about 500,000 cases of pneumococcal pneumonia in the United States every year, accounting for up to 50 percent of all adult pneumonias. Approximately 40,000 Americans die annually of pneumococcal infections. Such infections are also common in infants and toddlers, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

"A lot of people are suffering needlessly from these diseases," added Dr. Walter Orenstein, assistant U.S. Surgeon General.

Flu season in the United States generally runs from December through March.

The groups that should get vaccinated first for flu, starting this month, include:

  • Anyone with heart or lung disease, including people with asthma;
  • People with diabetes, chronic anemia, or kidney or liver disease;
  • Those whose immune system is deficient, such as people with HIV infection or AIDS, as well as people on steroids or any other medication that suppresses the immune system;
  • Women who will be in the second or third trimester of pregnancy during flu season;
  • Health-care workers and caregivers;
  • Everyone over age 65.

While not an official recommendation, health officials are encouraging parents of children between the ages of 6 months and 23 months to get them vaccinated because they are at risk of complications. Also, parents and caregivers should be vaccinated as well, so they won't bring flu into the home, Schaffner said.

If you're in one of these groups and can't get vaccinated in October, try to get vaccinated in November. Even getting immunized in December will likely provide you with protection against the flu.

From November on, those who should be vaccinated for flu include healthy individuals over 50, and anyone who doesn't want to get the disease.

The vaccine isn't recommended for children under 6 months. And people allergic to eggs or who've had a previous serious reaction to the influenza vaccine shouldn't receive it.

Schaffner said the vaccine is safe and effective, and can't give you the flu. Some people will have a sore arm for eight hours or so, but other side effects are rare, he added.

To try to prevent secondary pneumonia infections, health officials are also urging anyone in the following groups to get a pneumococcal vaccine along with their flu shot:

  • People over age 65;
  • Anyone with a chronic illness, such as heart or lung disease, diabetes, kidney or liver disease;
  • Alcoholics;
  • Immune-compromised individuals;
  • Residents of long-term care facilities, like nursing homes or chronic-care facilities.

Dr. Christopher Carpenter, an infectious disease specialist at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., said the most important message is, "Get vaccinated and get vaccinated early if you're in a high-risk group."

Orenstein said vaccination rates are much lower than they should be, particularly for minority groups.

About 65 percent of older white Americans get the flu vaccine annually, while only 49 percent of older blacks and 52 percent of older Hispanics do. Fifty-eight percent of older white Americans receive the pneumococcal vaccine, but only 35 percent of older blacks and 33 percent of older Hispanics do. This is distressing because blacks have the highest risk of pneumococcal disease, Orenstein said.

Schaffner said that while a lot of attention has been focused lately on the debate over whether people should be vaccinated against small pox, "We really should pay attention to keeping ourselves as healthy as possible by preventing diseases like influenza and pneumococcal disease that are actively hazardous to our health year in and year out."

What To Do

For more information on flu and the vaccine, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To learn more about the pneumococcal vaccine, check the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

SOURCES: William Schaffner, M.D., director, National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, and professor and chairman, department of preventative medicine, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Nashville, Tenn.; Christopher Carpenter, M.D., infectious disease consultant, William Beaumont Hospital, Royal Oak, Mich.; October 7, 2002, press conference, National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and National Coalition for Adult Immunization, Washington D.C.
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