By SHARON SALYER
National delivery of flu vaccine could be delayed until mid-November, and even then there may not be enough to meet demand, health officials warn.
Production problems could lead to more people getting sick at a time when the recommended age to get the shots is dropping from 65 to 50. If there is a shortage, those most at-risk will likely be given priority for vaccinations.
The predicted delay in the vaccine’s availability, up to six weeks later than usual, has been caused by problems in manufacturing safe virus for one of three flu strains covered in this year’s vaccine.
"Yes, I’m worried about outbreaks in vulnerable populations" such as older adults, said Dr. Jo Hofmann, who oversees communicable disease issues for the Snohomish Health District.
"I would say there’s a good chance there will be a shortage" of the vaccine, she added.
That’s because all U.S. vaccine manufacturers are having production problems, she said.
"This is not just us," Hofmann said. "It (affects) every health department, primary care provider, visiting nurse association and other organization that provides influenza vaccinations across the country."
Influenza causes about 20,000 deaths and 110,000 hospitalizations each year in this country.
Officials at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta suggest that flu shot campaigns be delayed until early to mid-November.
"To be honest, I can’t tell you if it was ever this late," center spokeswoman K.D. Hoskins said Wednesday of the predicted delay in flu vaccine shipments. "If it has, it has been some time ago."
This year’s shots will cover three strains of flu expected this flu season: A/Panama, which is the type causing the production slowdowns, Hoskins said, as well as A/New Caledonia and B/Beijing. The shots contain purified or noninfectious virus.
If initial demand does exceed supply, patients most at risk for developing serious illness or even dying from the flu, such as those with heart or lung problems, are expected to be given priority to prevent complications such as pneumonia and death, Hoskins said.
Younger and healthier adults, she said, may need to wait for shots. Last year, about 90 million doses of shots were produced in the United States.
"This year, because of the delay and possible shortage, we really don’t know how much (vaccine) we will have," she said.
Ironically, the delays and shortages come in a year when flu shots are being recommended for more adults than ever.
In the past, federal health officials said anyone age 65 and older should get the shots. This year the vaccine is recommended for anyone age 50 and older.
Hofmann acknowledged that the delay in flu vaccine delivery may cause public concern.
The combination of late vaccine delivery and possibly fewer doses "are two not very good things," she said, with the potential for the flu to spread more easily.
The flu season lasts for a limited period of time, she said. It takes two to four weeks for the shots to build up immunity to the disease.
"Really the ideal time to (give the shots) is in October because the immunity will last four to five months," she said.
However, people who get flu shots in mid-November still receive significant protection against the virus, a CDC statement says.
Federal health officials expect an update from manufacturers on delivery schedules and the amount of vaccine available by late August.
Meanwhile, Puget Sound-area organizations that provide the shots say they can only wait for more information before planning this year’s flu shot clinics.
Among them: Group Health, which provided shots to 84,000 residents last year.
"It is a concern," Doris Visaya, clinic program manager for Visiting Nurse Services of the Northwest, said of predicted vaccine delays. Her organization administered 55,000 flu shots last year, mostly in Puget Sound.
"We’re just hoping for the best," she added.
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