U.S. urges flu shots for those at risk


With the memory of last year's influenza season still fresh, government health officials yesterday highlighted the importance of flu vaccinations, especially for those at high risk.

Public health officials estimate that 100 million doses of vaccine will be available this year, up from 83 million doses last year, when there was a nationwide run on the shots in the wake of an outbreak.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, in a statement yesterday, urged groups at elevated risk to get the shots, saying that only half of those who need them most actually get them. An estimated 36,000 people die annually of the flu, most over age 65.

Those at highest risk include people of all ages who have existing medical conditions, such as diabetes, cancer, HIV infection, asthma and chronic pulmonary disorders. Other high-risk groups include children 6 months to 23 months old, and people 50 and older. Those groups generally have lower immunity to flu.

Physicians, meanwhile, are bracing for the flu season. Dr. Marc Siegel, associate professor of internal medicine at NYU Medical Center in Manhattan, said even though conventional medical wisdom suggests starting flu vaccinations in October, there's nothing wrong with getting a jump on the season.

"I would be vaccinating now but there's one big exception: our vaccines haven't arrived. I believe the earlier the better," Siegel said.

He added that pregnant women are also on the list of those in need of vaccinations because immunity is naturally lower during pregnancy.

Government epidemiologists yesterday underscored that vaccinating pregnant women also provides some protection for babies born during flu season, which usually runs from November through March.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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