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Healthy Folks Should Wait for Flu Shots

Government officials urge those at risk get vaccines first

THURSDAY, July 19, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- If you plan to get a flu shot this fall, and you're healthy and under 65, the federal government wants you to wait.

"We're asking people to allow those who are at risk to go ahead and get vaccinated first," says Vishnu Sneller, an epidemiologist at the National Immunization Program.

Officials are hoping to avoid the havoc of last year's flu vaccine efforts, which were hampered by short supply, delays and confusion.

This year, flu vaccine manufacturers expect to make 77 million doses, compared with 70 million last year, Sneller says. With the exception of infants, people need just one injection to be protected.

Normally, people begin lining up for shots as early as August to prepare for the flu season, which usually begins in earnest in late December and lasts through April.

But this year is different.

"It won't be available at the end of the summer as people were used to," Sneller says. In fact, only about 15 million doses are expected to be available by the end of October.

People who are not at risk -- "those who want to save themselves from being out a day or two from work if they get sick" -- can get shots as late as December or even January and still be protected, Sneller says. It takes about two weeks for the vaccine dose to reach full effect.

As millions of Americans find out every winter, the flu can knock you flat. Symptoms usually include headache, fever, aches and exhaustion. In 1996, approximately 95 million Americans, or more than one of every three people, reported having the flu, says the National Center for Health Statistics.

High-risk groups include nursing home residents, people over 65, pregnant women and people of any age who have lung or heart problems or who have conditions which weaken their immune systems.

Aventis Pasteur, a pharmaceutical company that plans to produce 40 million doses of vaccine, is making changes this year to make sure more doses go to high-risk people, says spokesman Len Lavenda.

For one, he says the company is reducing the number of vaccines it sells to "middle men," who then resell to supermarkets or businesses.

"We took this step so we could put more vaccine directly in the hands of health-care providers, who we believe are in the best position to determine which patients are at high risk," he says.

Also, Aventis Pasteur will follow new federal recommendations and send its supply of vaccines in batches, instead of all at once. That way the doses won't be used up if a shortage develops.

"This is a good policy to have at any point in time," Lavenda says. "It facilitates high-risk patients getting immunized early in the season."

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sent warnings to health-care providers, urging them to order their vaccine doses early. Due to shortages last year, some manufacturers stopped taking advance orders early on.

"That caused a lot of unhappiness," Sneller says.

What To Do

If you're in a high-risk group, plan to get your flu shot, but don't be surprised if it comes a few months later than usual. If you're not at risk, be prepared to wait.

Learn about the flu vaccine from the CDC.

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

SOURCES: Interviews with Vishnu Sneller, Ph.D., medical epidemiologist, National Immunization Program, CDC, Atlanta; Len Lavenda, spokesman, Aventis Pasteur, Stillwater, Pa.
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