What’s New With the Flu Vaccine?

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The good news is that flu vaccine supplies this season should be able to meet the usual annual demand; the bad news is that you still might have to wait for a vaccine well into flu season.

In June, federal public health officials were told by flu vaccine manufacturers to expect delays in flu vaccine shipments and possible shortages because they were having difficulty growing one of the three influenza (flu) virus components used to make this year’s vaccine. Also, two of the manufacturers were experiencing manufacturing problems.

Last week, federal health officials announced that the flu vaccine supplies should be about what they were last year. As part of their contingency plans, though, federal health officials are still recommending that those who are at serious risk of complications from the flu – including the elderly and the very sick – be given priority to receive the flu vaccine.

Typically, the optimal time for getting a flu shot is October through November. However, this season, if you are under 65 and healthy, you may have to wait until December to receive a flu shot because of continuing problems in the delivery of the vaccine to healthcare providers. Even though that’s well into flu season, federal health officials say it’s still not too late.

“Out of 18 flu seasons, flu activity didn’t peak until sometime in January through March,” says Barbara Reynolds, a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “For healthy adults, it still would be reasonable to get vaccinated as late as December.”

The Food and Drug Administration estimates that 66 million doses of flu vaccine will be available from manufacturers through normal production, which typically ends this month. However, the CDC has asked one of the vaccine manufacturers to extend the production season into November and possibly early December. The CDC has guaranteed the production of up to 9 million doses of flu vaccine – for a total of 75 million doses – to make up for a possible shortfall.

“If the vaccine isn’t used, we’ll pay for it,” says Reynolds.

During last year’s flu season in the United States, an estimated 74 million doses were distributed to providers from the 80 to 85 million doses produced. If this year’s supply doesn’t exceed last year’s demand, Reynolds says there shouldn’t be a shortage of vaccine.

Who gets flu shot first?

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) met Sept. 28, by teleconference, to review recommendations about the timing and priority of flu vaccination in the United States for this flu season. The ACIP recommended the following:

  • As the vaccine first becomes available, those given top priority to receive the vaccine include people who have chronic medical conditions, such as heart disease, asthma, and diabetes, those who have immune system problems, resident of chronic care facilities, and healthcare providers. If you fall into a high-risk group, officials urge you to remain patient but persistent in working with your healthcare provider to obtain an annual flu vaccination.

If you are at high risk, health officials also recommend you get a pneumoccocal vaccination early in the flu season. A pneumoccocal vaccination will confer protection from a major complication of the flu – secondary bacterial pneumonia – but it is not a substitute for the flu vaccine.

  • Special efforts will be made in December and later to make the vaccine available to people ages 50-64 who are not at high risk and are not household contacts of high-risk people.
  • Immunization efforts would continue into December and later for all groups, including those under 50 and healthy, as long as the flu vaccine is available.
  • Healthcare providers, companies, and other organizations are being asked to hold off on mass flu vaccine campaigns until later in the season as the availability of vaccine is assured.

Only about half of the 70 to 76 million US residents at high risk for complications from the flu have received the vaccine in previous flu seasons. The high-risk groups include approximately 35 million people aged 65 or older, 33 to 39 million people under age 65 with high-risk medical conditions, and 2 million pregnant women.

Defend yourself against colds and flu

Although the flu can be deadly – killing more than 20,000 people each year – most people who get it suffer through it for a week or two, typically with a sore throat, muscle aches, chills, and a fever.

Health officials offer these tips as a way to defend yourself against colds and flu during the winter:

  • Exercise regularly, eat nutritious foods, and get plenty of rest.
  • Wash your hands often. You can pick up a cold from even a handshake.
  • Avoid touching the moist areas of your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Avoid sharing cups, glasses, toothbrushes, or utensils among family members or friends, especially during peak cold and flu seasons.
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