Late scramble for vaccine as flu season heats up

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WASHINGTON -- Missed flu-shot day at the office last fall? And all those "get vaccinated" ads? A scramble for shots is under way as late-comers seek protection from a miserable flu strain already spreading through much of the country.

Federal health officials said Friday that there is still some flu vaccine available, and it's not too late to benefit from it. But people may have to call around to find a clinic with shots still on the shelf, or wait a few days for a new shipment. "We're hearing of spot shortages," said Thomas Frieden, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some questions and answers about flu vaccines:

Q: Are we running out of vaccine?

A: It's January -- we shouldn't have a lot left. The traditional time to get vaccinated is in the fall, so people are protected before influenza starts spreading. Indeed, manufacturers already have shipped nearly 130 million doses to doctors' offices, drugstores and wholesalers, out of the 135 million doses they had planned to make for this year's flu season. At least 112 million have been used so far.

The nation's largest manufacturer, Sanofi Pasteur, said Friday that it still has supplies of two specialty vaccines, a high-dose shot for seniors, and an under-the-skin shot for certain adults, available for immediate shipment. But it also is working to eke out a limited supply of its traditional shots -- some doses that it initially hadn't packaged into syringes. They should be available late this month.

And MedImmune, the maker of the nasal spray vaccine FluMist, said it has 620,000 extra doses available.

Q: Can't they just make more?

A: No. Flu vaccine is complicated to brew, with supplies for each winter made months in advance, and at the numbers expected to sell. Although health officials recommend a yearly flu vaccination for nearly everybody, last year 52 percent of children and just 39 percent of adults were immunized. Most years, leftover doses have to be thrown out.

Q: Should I still hunt for a vaccine?

A: It does take two weeks for full protection to kick in. Still, health officials say it's a good idea to be vaccinated even this late, especially for older people, young children and anyone with medical conditions such as heart or lung diseases that put them at high risk of dangerous flu complications. Flu season does tend to be worst in January and February, but it can run through March.

Q: What else can I do?

A: Wash your hands often, and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Viruses can spread by hand, not just through the air. Also, cough in your elbow, not your hand. When you're sick, protect others by staying home.

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