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Flu shot easier to get this year

No shortage of flu vaccines is expected in Florida, but there may be a delay in getting the shots in some areas.

Published October 17, 2005

It won't protect you if bird flu suddenly crosses the globe.

And most people can't get one until Oct. 24.

But a flu shot still could save your life. And, so far at least, flu shots should be easier to find this year than last year, when a dramatic shortage prompted long lines and panicked searches across the country.

While some areas nationally are reporting shortages, several Florida doctors and health officials said they have at least some shots and don't anticipate any problems.

"Flu vaccines have been arriving in the state of Florida on a regular basis," said Doc Kokol, spokesman for the Florida Department of Health. "We are not anticipating any shortfall in flu vaccine this season."

Still, not everyone is so sure.

"People are clamoring for them earlier this year," said Dr. Lane France, medical director of Pediatric Health Care Alliance, which has 13 Tampa Bay offices. "We're getting them to the kids in high-risk situations, with chronic illnesses ... we'll probably have a few left, but not many."

Even those who have shots feel a little cautious.

"I know I probably won't have a supply problem at all," said Dr. Patrick Cimino, medical director of Health Point Medical Group, which has 24 Hillsborough County offices and one in Pinellas. "But if I say that, probably something will happen."

Cimino has reason to hedge bets. Last year, the nation's flu shot supply was cut in half overnight when British officials shut down the plant of Chiron Corp., then one of only two makers of flu shots for the United States. As health officials scrambled to find more shots, thousands of the old and the sick were forced to stand in line for hours waiting for shots.

Eventually, some 61-million shots were given out, far short of the 100-million ordered.

This year, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that only people in high-risk groups get shots until Oct. 24. People who are very young, old or sick are more likely to die or develop serious complications from flu.

But CDC officials say they expect 71-million to 97-million doses of flu vaccine to be available this season. Both of last year's manufacturers, Chiron and Sanofi Pasteur Inc., are making shots. Another company, drug giant GlaxoSmithKline, has started making vaccine and expects to produce 8-million shots. A fourth company, MedImmune, plans to have 3-million doses of flu vaccine in a nasal spray.

"The high end, if that (97-million) is reached, it will be the largest amount of flu vaccine ever made," said CDC spokeswoman Lola Russell.

Also last week, the FDA approved some of Chiron's vaccine to be released.

"We don't expect a shortage. We have everyone producing their vaccine," Russell said. "We don't expect it, but we're monitoring it very closely. The overall picture looks very promising."

It's too early to say how severe this year's flu season is likely to be, Russell said.

Several vaccine providers around the country have reported delays in getting vaccine deliveries, said Donna Brown, government affairs counsel at the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

Some places had to delay public flu shot clinics. Even though NACCHO officials think the shots will be available in time for this year's flu season, some health officials worry that people who are at greater risk may get discouraged and give up.

"Our system is not designed to ensure that there are early flu shots available to those who need them most," Brown said.

"Health departments, in particular, they're having to postpone their clinics and turn away elderly people who might want their shots," Brown said. "It's important that people recognize that if they need to get a shot in November or December, that's fine."

For now, such delays seem less of a problem for Florida. A few places, such as the Hillsborough County Health Department and Doctor's Walk-In Clinics, which runs seven Tampa Bay clinics, say their shots have been late.

But Florida's flu season generally runs behind the rest of the nation. In a typical year, Florida flu doesn't peak until at least February.

The health department had expected to start providing shots to high-risk groups a few weeks ago. Instead, some of the department's shipment was delayed, so health officials didn't start administering shots until last Monday. But so far, people don't seem to be thinking much about flu, said Cindy Hardy, Hillsborough's immunization program manager.

"The first day we only gave 35 to 50," she said. "We just have not seen the big influx that we thought we would. If it's hot outside and it feels like summer, regardless of what you see and hear, people just don't think about flu."

So far, the six Bayfront Convenient Care Clinics have gotten half of the 6,000 shots they ordered, said Dr. Nathan Keith Waldrep, medical director. The clinics have given out 1,800 doses.

"Traditionally people think of getting their flu vaccine in November, so we're very early in the process," Waldrep said.

Health Point ordered 18,300 shots and has received roughly 75 percent, Cimino said. Doctor's Walk-In hasn't yet received the 27,000 doses it ordered, but expects to hear next week about a shipping date, said Kathy Miller, director of nursing.

"We're not anticipating problems, other than that we're getting them later than we expected," Miller said.

The state health department has ordered about 350,000 doses, about 50,000 more than last year, Kokol said. The department has received about 55,000 shots and expects to get a similar order soon.

Such staggered deliveries are normal, Kokol said.

"We're definitely not seeing a supply-and-demand problem at all," said Jeannine Mallory, spokeswoman for the Pinellas County Health Department. Pinellas ordered 11,000 doses, has gotten 3,200 and last Monday administered 1,500.

But France said his pediatric group was allowed to order only several thousand shots, the same as last year. Between last year's shortage and this year's publicity about a potential bird flu pandemic, he thinks more people will want shots.

"Even though this doesn't protect against avian flu, I think that's on everyone's mind," France said.

The flu expected to circulate this season contains familiar strains of human virus. But health officials fear that a deadly strain of influenza virus carried by birds could mutate so it could spread easily among people. The bird flu, now circulating in Asia, has killed more than 65 people, most of whom came into direct contact with birds.

If bird flu starts to spread among people, health officials say, a worldwide epidemic could kill anywhere from 2-million to 150-million people.

This season's flu shot provides no protection against the Asian bird flu, a strain known as H5N1. It's possible, however, that if bird flu mixed with a human flu strain, and the resulting mix began to spread, that traditional flu shots could provide some protection, say flu experts.

[Last modified October 17, 2005, 01:18:14]

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