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Loosening of Flu Shot Restrictions Urged

Government panel seeks wider immunizations in areas with enough vaccine

FRIDAY, Dec. 17, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Acting cautiously in a situation where some state officials are worried that flu shots will go to waste and others don't have enough even for high-risk groups, U.S. government advisers on Friday recommended loosening restrictions on use of the vaccine.

The recommendations, made during an emergency meeting of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, are somewhat complex.

By unanimous vote, the committee recommended the vaccine be made available to many people now not classified as being at high risk for the flu. The new recommendation calls for vaccination of those who come into close contact with persons at high risk -- those aged 65 and older, infants and those with chronic conditions -- and also persons aged 50 to 64, with the significant proviso that the relaxed rules depend on local availability of the vaccine.

Local availability now varies widely. A New York state representative on the committee expressed fear of a shortage, saying that 10 outbreaks of flu have just been reported in the state. But other members noted that six to eight states, most in the Midwest, have abandoned all restrictions on vaccination.

The committee recommended the new rules take effect Jan. 1. The CDC must now approve the changes, which it is expected to do.

The restrictions were put into place after health officials learned that nearly half the nation's flu shot supply would be cut off because of contamination at the Liverpool, England, plant of vaccine maker Chiron Corp. Only about 65 million doses of vaccine will be available in the United States, including a nasal vaccine that is safe only for younger, healthy people.

A national survey reported this week found that only 63 percent of adults aged 65 and older and only 46 percent of chronically ill adults who tried to get the vaccine have succeeded.

Dr. William Schaffner, a liaison member of the CDC advisory committee who is head of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said he welcomed the committee's approach, adding that a vigorous effort to get people vaccinated is still needed.

"Our own institution is going to move ahead to offer the vaccine to people on the extended priority list on Monday," Schaffner said. "We're very concerned that vaccine should not remain on the shelf."

The new recommendation means that a very large percentage of the American population now qualifies for flu vaccination, Schaffner said, noting that close contact with older people and babies is common at this time of the year.

Some 21 million doses of vaccine have been distributed since the shortage was reported in October. About 3.5 million more doses of a vaccine made by Aventis Pasteur are on the way, and federal officials recently negotiated purchase of a GlaxoSmithKline vaccine that will be available under an investigational new drug protocol. CDC officials have said that anyone wanting a shot should check with a physician or local health authority about its availability.

More information

Flu vaccine basics are available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: William Schaffner, M.D., head, preventive medicine, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, Tenn.; Dec. 17, 2004, meeting, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices
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