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It's Not Too Late to Inoculate

Health officials urge flu shots for all

THURSDAY, Dec. 5, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- So you think it's too late to get your flu shot? Maybe not.

"There is a notion out there that once you get past Thanksgiving, it's too late. Wrong," said Dr. William Schaffner, director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and a preventive medicine expert at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Flu causes about 110,000 hospitalizations and 20,000 deaths every year in the United States. It also takes a major toll on the nation's economy, leading to as many as 100 million lost days of work and billions in lost productivity, said Dr. Kristin L. Nichol, chief of the medicine service at the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis.

Each flu shot given saves the country more than $13 in health care costs and lost productivity from the virus.

Schaffner and Nichol spoke during a teleconference with reporters today to promote the flu vaccine. Nichol said she has heard anecdotal reports of low turnout at immunization clinics so far this year, and especially at store-front facilities like supermarkets and drug stores. But, she added, there's no concrete evidence yet of a trend.

Nichol said that if the anecdotes prove true, they might reflect confusion about when to receive the vaccine. Last year, for instance, there was a shortage of the vaccine, so healthy people were urged to delay getting their shots until high-risk groups had their turn. This year, however, health officials estimate that vaccine makers produced 93 million doses of flu shots, up from 87 million in 2001.

Low immunization rates, if they exist, might also be the result of a string of relatively mild recent flu seasons, Nichol said, leading some people to become complacent about getting vaccinated.

Between 5 percent and 15 percent of working adults get the infection, she said. "It's not like being on vacation."

Flu activity this seasons so far has been low, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But spread of the virus is expected to gather momentum in the coming weeks. "This is the time now for everyone to be immunized," Nichol said.

Nick Peterson, nurse manger at the Fenway Community Health Center in Boston, called demand for the vaccine "about normal" this year and said he and his colleagues had dispensed almost all of their allotment of 1,400 to 1,500 doses. The Fenway clinic serves a high-risk population for flu, including the elderly and many patients with HIV and AIDS.

Several medical groups, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC have declared, with an Elizabethan touch, the first two weeks of this month to be "National Influenza Vaccination Catch-Up Fortnight."

For the first time, doctors are suggesting that parents of children ages 6 months to two years consider having them immunized against the virus, Schaffner said.

Last month, Wyeth Vaccines announced that it would no longer produce flu shots, though it is working on a nasal spray. The company's departure leaves two manufacturers still making the injected inoculation.

Health officials said Wyeth's move doesn't jeopardize this year's supply of vaccine. The two remaining firms, Aventis Pasteur and Evans Vaccines, have said they will increase their output next season to make up for the difference, officials said.

Aventis has funded the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases' flu awareness efforts.

What To Do

For more on the flu, try the CDC or the National Coalition for Adult Immunization.

SOURCES: William Schaffner, M.D., director, National Foundation for Infectious Diseases; Kristin L. Nichol, M.D., M.P.H, chief, Medicine Service, VA Medical Center, Minneapolis; Jennifer Wright, DVM, MPH, CDC, National Center for Infectious Diseases, Atlanta; Nick Peterson, RN, clinic nurse manager, Fenway Community Health Center, Boston; American Medical Association; Dec. 6, 2002, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
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