Flu Vaccine Outlook Good

Edition: December 2001 - Vol 9 Number 12
Article#: 1119
Author: Repertoire

There's more flu vaccine than ever this year, despite the fact that the number of companies making it has dropped to three. What's more, efforts to vaccinate the highest-risk people first have been successful.

''We'll have more vaccine available than ever,'' said Dr. Keiji Fukuda, influenza expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, speaking at a telephone press conference in early November. In fact, manufacturers will produce 85 million doses for this year's flu season, compared to just 70 million doses last year and 77 million the year before that. The increase continues a two-decade-long upward trend in doses, said Fukuda.

Because of a drop in manufacturing capacity, the distribution of this year's vaccine was held up. One manufacturer- Parkedale Pharmaceuticals, Rochester, MI, a subsidiary of King Pharmaceuticals- was forced to discontinue production of its influenza vaccine after the Food and Drug Administration determined that the company had failed to follow Current Good Manufacturing Practice in its production and testing. That left three companies to pick up the slack: Lederle Laboratories Division of American Cynamid, Pearl River, NY; Evans Vaccines, Liverpool, England; and Aventis Pasteur, Lyons, France.

The ensuing delay in distribution prompted the CDC and other health officials early in the season to urge all but high-risk people to delay receiving their vaccines until November or December. Those in the high-risk category include those who:
- Are over age 65.
- Have heart and lung disease, or other chronic medical conditions.
- Have immunodeficiency diseases.
- Are in their second or third trimester of pregnancy.
- Are health care workers, or have close contact with health care workers.

Ordinarily, October and November are the best months to get vaccinated, said Fukuda. Nevertheless, CDC has gotten the word out to physicians that they should continue their vaccination efforts well into December this year.

Approximately 20,000 people die in the United States every year from the flu, and 114,000 are hospitalized. ''It's a major public health problem,'' Fukuda said. Flu vaccines are the major way to reduce complications.

The Anthrax Scare
Getting vaccinated never provides 100 percent protection against developing the flu, said Fukuda. The vaccination's effectiveness depends on how good a match exists between it and the particular strain of flu that is predominant in any given year. ''In a good year, with a good match, and given a person with a pretty good immune system, the vaccine can be very protective, though not 100 percent,'' he said.

Even so, tens of millions of people develop flu-like illnesses from a variety of causes every year, he said. In fact, less than half of all flu-like illnesses are due to influenza viruses.

''When people get vaccinated against influenza, they decrease their chances of getting the flu, but they can still get infected by other viruses,'' Fukuda said.

Consequently, vaccinated patients with flu-like symptoms should NOT assume they have developed a deadly disease like anthrax. ''We want to separate the idea that getting a flu vaccination has [anything to do] with getting anthrax,'' said Fukuda.

There is one clue to help patients tell the difference. None of the cases of anthrax seen so far have presented with rhinitis, or runny noses, said Fukuda. ''So doctors can say to their patients, 'If you're developing something that feels like a cold, and you have a runny nose, it's very likely to be a cold.'' That is to say, it's likely NOT to be anthrax.