• U.S.

Health: Flu-Shot Anxiety

3 minute read
Alice Park

JUST AS YOU WERE GETTING ready to roll up your sleeve for your annual flu shot, the government announced last week that there would not be enough serum to go around.

Why the shortage? Contamination problems in a Liverpool, England, plant prompted the British government to suspend the license of Chiron Corp., one of only two companies making flu vaccines for the U.S. market. Chiron was supposed to supply 46 million to 48 million of the U.S.’s total order of 100 million doses.

Are shots available now? Aventis, the other vaccine manufacturer, has released 30 million of its 54 million doses.

Who gets those shots? The CDC strongly recommends that available vaccines go first to those at highest risk of complications from flu: people ages 65 and older and ages six months to 23 months, women who plan to be pregnant this winter and health-care workers who are likely to be exposed to patients with compromised immune systems.

Can the current supply be stretched? Perhaps. In 2002 the National Institutes of Health reported that people immunized with half doses of vaccine produced enough antibodies to protect themselves. This year’s strain would have to be tested, perhaps with health-care workers, since officials are not sure it will work the same way.

Could my shot be contaminated? Not according to the FDA. Before the vaccines could be distributed, officials quarantined the 5 million or 6 million doses Chiron had shipped to the U.S.

If I can’t get vaccinated, how can I protect myself? FluMist, a nasal-spray vaccine based on a weakened live virus, might be an option if your immune system is healthy. (The manufacturer lowered its price last week and plans to double its supply.) Antiviral medicines like Tamiflu may also help. Since you can be contagious from a day before you get sick to a week after symptoms appear, you should wash your hands often and cover your mouth when you cough. If you do get sick, stay home at the first sign of illness.

Can another company pick up the slack? Not right away. Flu vaccines differ from year to year, depending on which influenza strains are circulating. It takes three to four months to culture the right flu viruses in chicken eggs. Aventis may ramp up production, but the next batch wouldn’t be available until February or March.

What about bird flu? This year’s flu shots (designed last spring) were not meant to protect against the bird flu that is infecting chickens and ducks and some people in Thailand and Malaysia. There is still no vaccine for bird flu.

For more information on the flu, go to cdc.gov

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