Flu is fickle

Vaccines vital to slowing spread of rapidly changing virus strains

Vaccines vital to slowing spread of rapidly changing virus strains

September 27, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

It's that time again.

The fall season officially began last week.

The flu season will be coming on its heels.

It can begin as early as October and last as late as May, according to information on the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

Normally, flu activity begins between December and February. Last year, outbreaks in Texas were reported in early to mid-October. And last year's flu season was more severe than the previous four seasons. At its peak - the week ending Dec. 20, 2003 - influenza affected the most states it had in any week in four years.


What's happening this year?

It's hard to predict. Influenza viruses change constantly. Each year one or two of the three virus strains in the vaccine are updated to keep up with changes. The flu is different every year, the vaccine is different every year, so people need to get a shot every year, according to information from the CDC.

At an Aug. 27 press briefing on the flu, Dr. Julie Gerberding, CDC director, announced that one of the vaccine manufacturers had announced a delay in delivery of some doses of the vaccine because of production problems related to sterility of a small number of doses in one of their plants.

There might be a delay, but no shortage of vaccine is expected.

"We're expecting more than 100 million doses of flu vaccine this year," she said, "more than we ever have had before."

CDC says October or November is the best time to get vaccinated, but people still can get vaccinated in December and later.

Because of the manufacturing delay, some clinics usually scheduled in early October might need to be scheduled later, Gerberding said. Vaccine will be available in time to protect people, Gerberding said.

Even if clinics are later, people should get vaccinated - especially those at increased risk of serious complications.

They include:

· people older than 50.

· residents of facilities housing people with long-term illnesses.

· adults and children older than 6 months who have chronic heart or lung conditions, including asthma.

· adults and children older than 6 months of age who need regular medical care or who were hospitalized because of metabolic diseases (such as diabetes), chronic kidney disease or a weakened immune system.

· children and teenagers - 6 months to 18 years - who are on long-term aspirin therapy and therefore could develop the often fatal Reye's syndrome after the flu.

· women who will be more than three months pregnant during the flu season.

The CDC has a new recommendation this year: All children 6 to 23 months old should get a flu shot. The agency cites studies that have shown that children younger than 2 - "even healthy children" - are more likely to be hospitalized if they get the flu.

Washington County Health Officer William Christoffel said there will be local effort to vaccinate the very young. Infection is common among children younger than 1, he said.

A nasal-spray flu vaccine became available last year. It is made with live, weakened flu viruses and is approved for use in healthy people 5 to 49 who are not pregnant, according to the CDC.

Washington County Health Department bought 1,000 doses and used 36 in 2003, Christoffel said. The health department will not offer the nasal-spray vaccine this year, he said.

"It's very expensive," Christoffel said.

The introduction of SARS and the Avian Flu has increased the need for the flu shot, according to Dr. Norman H. Edelman, the American Lung Association's consultant for medical affairs. The symptoms of the three diseases are similar. An influenza vaccination on one's medical record can help doctors determine another cause of illness and prescribe the correct medical course.

Caused by a virus, influenza infects the respiratory tract - nose, throat and lungs.

Flu season is different every year, but it is estimated that 5 to 20 percent of United States residents get the flu and more than 200,000 people are hospitalized for related complications each year.

Complications of flu take the lives of about 36,000 Americans each year, according to the CDC.

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