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Double whammy: County out of flu vaccine in bad flu year

December 09, 2003|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

Washington County health experts had two pieces of bad news Monday: This winter's strain of the flu appears to be more severe than in past years and the county has run out of flu shot vaccine.

The news comes at a time when demand, locally and nationally, for the vaccine is high, Washington County Health Officer William Christoffel said.

Nationwide, about 80 million people received the flu shot this year, Christoffel said.

At seven flu shot clinics for adults, the Washington County Health Department administered 6,000 doses to county residents, he said.

That is about 800 more flu shots than were delivered last year, Christoffel said.

Due to the vaccine shortage, the Health Department had to cancel a Dec. 12 clinic intended to provide flu shots to children, he said.

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He is trying to get more vaccine so he can do another clinic for local residents, but it is unlikely more vaccine can be supplied, he said. He thinks private businesses also are out of the vaccine.

"I don't think anyone has the vaccine. I think everyone is out," Christoffel said.

Christoffel and John Newby, director of laboratories for the Washington County Health System, said they think more county residents sought the flu shot this year because they heard reports that the strain is tougher on the body than those in past years.

It is too early to say if more local residents will get the flu this year because of these developments, Newby said.

About 30 people have tested positive for influenza so far this winter, he said.

Usually, most people locally don't come down with the flu until February, he said.

Tom Gilbert, medical director of the Washington County Hospital emergency department, said he is concerned this could be a bad year for the flu locally, especially for children. It is difficult with children to determine whether they are suffering from the flu, or some other virus or cold, he said.

The last time there was a flu strain mutation similar to the one sickening thousands of Americans this year, nearly 65,000 died. That was five years ago.

Christoffel said he did not expect problems to be as bad this year.

Each year, the strain of the flu that makes some sick varies from the prior year, Newby said. When making the flu shot, researchers try to predict what the strain will be like so they can counter it with the best possible vaccine, he said.

"This is not even a science. This is kind of a best guess," Newby said. "There is no way to anticipate this."

Sometimes - and this winter appears to be one of those times - the flu strain changes more than expected and the vaccine is less effective than usual, he said.

But the flu shots still are helpful: People who get the flu who also had the vaccine will fare better than those who did not, he said.

If you did not get the flu shot and are worried about getting the flu, Newby suggested avoiding crowded places. But he does not want people to take that idea to the extreme, he said.

"Do not become a hermit by any means. And be reasonable and live a healthy lifestyle," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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