WASHINGTON – Public health officials on Wednesday reiterated their yearly flu-season advice: What you can easily prevent is also what can kill you.
After flu consciousness broadened last year because of a vaccine shortage,so,it seems,has the campaign to make sure high-risk groups – the old,the young and the vulnerable – are vaccinated.
But this year has seen a new high-risk group emerge: Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Thousands of people relocated and living in crowded shelters run an unpredictably high risk of getting and transmitting the virus,said Julie Gerberding,director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,at a press conference. Left unvaccinated,they could cause this year's flu deaths to surpass the annual average of 36,000.
In places like Texas and Florida,where many of the displaced are in shelters,flu prevention may prove a difficult task.
“The CDC has made allowances so we can take care of that,” said Doc Kokol,communications director of the Florida Department of Health. “We have ordered additional vaccines to make sure we take care of that.”
Sanofi Pasteur Inc.,the company expected to supply the United States with 60 million doses,has donated 200,000 for evacuees,Gerberding said.
A barrier standing in the way for the evacuees is the uncertainty of supply – when vaccines will arrive and just how many doses there will be. If last year proved anything,it's that projections are not always reliable.
“We have no control over the vaccine supply,” said Doug McBride,press officer for the Texas Department of State Health Services. “We have no control over how many doses are manufactured for the country.”
Referring to the contamination that prevented Chiron Corp. from supplying about 50 million expected doses,Gerberding said,“There are always uncertainties,as we certainly learned last year.”
The United States should receive between 71 million and 97 million flu shot doses this year,Gerberding said – significantly more than last year's total of 57 million doses. More than 100 million people are at high risk,according to the CDC,but this year's supply should be enough to accommodate those who seek vaccinations.
Another problem is that not all high-risk groups are concentrated in catered-to areas – like shelters or nursing homes. The majority of vaccinations are supplied at private health care facilities,which require appointments. That explains in part why a minority of high-risk persons receive annual vaccinations.
For example,last year about 48 percent of children 6 to 23 months old – a CDC priority group – received vaccinations,but “52 percent didn't,and that's a problem,” said Henry Bernstein of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Just one-fourth of the 9 million children younger than 18 diagnosed with asthma,another high-risk group,did not receive vaccinations.
“This dismal immunization rate is particularly alarming,” Bernstein said.
Health care personnel compose the group stressed the most by each member of the panel. If they fail to receive vaccines,“risks grow significantly,particularly to patients,” said Ardis Hoven of the American Medical Association. Only 40 percent of them are vaccinated on average each year.
The only group whose majority receives vaccinations is adults ages 65 and older. Last year,more than 65 percent of them got shots. Still,that number falls short of the 90 percent the CDC hopes to reach by 2010.
Since 2003,an alternative to a traditional flu shot called FluMist has been available. It is administered nasally,and any healthy person ages 5 to 49,excluding pregnant women,can use it. The CDC has mandated that,until Oct. 24,only high-risk group members may receive flu shots,so FluMist is a good choice for healthy adults in the meantime.
However,the government's cost of administering the vaccine has more than doubled,from $8.21 last year to $18.57. The panel stressed that Medicare and Medicaid have increased their payment for a flu shot to $12.06.
Overall,there is little reason for anyone not to seek vaccination. Vaccines work nearly 90 percent of the time.
“We know for sure that the vaccine saves,” Gerberding said.