Ahchoo! Flu season is coming

September 24, 2008 3:55:30 PM PDT
With millions more expected to seek flu shots, experts say vaccine supplies are better than ever.

With the onset of flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases held a news conference to discuss new vaccine recommendations and address how this year's flu vaccine will protect recipients.

Among new recommendations for the year will include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommending flu vaccines for anyone older than 6 months of age and advising people to get vaccinated later in the season if they cannot do it sooner, because vaccinations slow down in November, while the flu peaks in February and persists through May.

While in past years having enough flu vaccine has been a problem, expectations are that enough will be available this year for anyone who tries to get a flu shot.

"We should have plenty of flu vaccine, given that there are people who just aren't going to take it," said Dr. Carol J. Baker, executive director of the Texas Children's Center for Vaccine Awareness and Research and a pediatrician at Baylor College of Medicine. "[We're] in much better shape to prevent influenza than we've ever been, historically."

Vaccine manufacturers are also preparing for high demand.

"We cannot anticipate how many people will receive an influenza vaccine this year. However, to help meet CDC vaccination recommendations, Novartis Vaccines is producing up to 40 million doses of Fluvirin," said Beth Birke, a spokeswoman for Novartis, one of several companies that manufactures an approved flu vaccine.

"I think the concern this year is how we're going to immunize 30-plus million children," said Baker.

She noted that the sheer quantity could be difficult, and said that in order to step up efforts, some may need to be vaccinated at pharmacies or grocery stores or at school.

"It's going to be difficult using the model of the physician's office," said Baker.

She noted there was an additional incentive to immunize children, because "children, especially the youngest ones, are such effective spreaders of the flu." By vaccinating children, the spread of flu to unimmunized parents, grandparents and other adults may be minimized.

But Baker noted that it would require widespread immunization for that to happen.

"If you only immunize half the population, you may not see an effect," she said.

One positive sign for Baker and other physicians was an earlier delivery of vaccines this year, with some arriving in August.

"Because we got the vaccine so early, there'll be more time to actually get this done."

Baker said that vaccinations were set to begin Monday, but were delayed a week because of Hurricane Ike.

Manufacturers were also prepared to get vaccines out sooner.

Birke said that Novartis received approval from the Food and Drug Administration to manufacture more of the vaccine at a plant in Rosia, Italy, "to further support our ability to deliver more vaccine earlier in the season."

Record numbers of immunizations are expected, though last year's vaccine did not protect against influenza as well as it had in the past.

Strains are chosen in February, based on data about the spread of flu in the Southern Hemisphere and expectations for which strains will predominate in the Northern Hemisphere in the forthcoming season.

"There's a certain amount of science and a certain amount of art to it," said Stephen Morse, an epidemiologist from Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, in an interview with ABC News last week.

Last year, Baker explained, two of the three strains of influenza did not match well, so the vaccine only matched the strains going around by 44 percent, as opposed to typical goals of 70 percent to 90 percent.

As a result, all three of the flu strains whose components are included in this year's vaccine are new.

But even fears of a less effective vaccine shouldn't discourage people from getting immunized, said Baker.

"We're not saying it wasn't a good vaccine, we're saying it doesn't match the way it should. We had 44 percent protection ultimately. If you don't get a flu shot, you get none."

"Even though it was a poor match, it's all relative of what you think poor is. Would I like it to be 90 percent? Sure, but I wouldn't like it to be 0 percent."


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