Manufacturers are on track to produce and ship more flu vaccine than ever before, averting the fears of a shortage that have marked recent flu seasons, federal health authorities said yesterday.
With the supply virtually assured, officials of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged all Americans who want flu vaccinations to get them.
In particular, they recommend innoculation for infants over 6 months of age, pregnant women, adults with asthma, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic illnesses, as well as all adults 50 and older. Officials also strongly recommended the vaccine for caregivers of babies under 6 months old, for whom the vaccine is not appropriate.
So far, no states have reported widespread flu outbreaks, though officials said it is too soon to predict severity. Flu normally peaks in December and January and continues into February.
"The take-home message is that activity remains low, and the people who have not yet been vaccinated this year should get vaccinated as soon as possible," said Dr. Joe Bresee, chief of epidemiology and prevention with the CDC's influenza division.
Vaccine manufacturers have ramped up production to meet rising demand, officials said. In recent years, federal health authorities have broadened their recommendations as to who should be vaccinated.
The government has also created incentives for companies to produce vaccine against pandemic flu - which is not circulating - and some have responded by making more conventional vaccine as well.
"We anticipate that as many as 132 million doses could be available by the end of the season," said Dr. Jeanne Santoli, deputy director of the CDC's immunization branch. "That would be about 10 million doses more than have ever before been produced in the United States."
Americans should not be dissuaded by news that the vaccine may not be a perfect match to protect against one of the three flu strains it is designed to prevent, officials said. The vaccine should be effective at preventing two strains and still reduce symptoms and complications for people afflicted with the third.
"Even if it's less than an ideal match, it can protect enough to make influenza illnesses milder," Bresee said.
Fashioning each year's flu vaccine involves a degree of guesswork. The vaccine is based on strains that emerge toward the end of the previous season. This year, there is some evidence that a strain emerging in the southern hemisphere has a different genetic makeup than anticipated.
Meanwhile, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reported that it expected to receive 130,000 vaccine doses - enough for its Vaccine for Children program, according to spokeswoman Karen Black. The program provides vaccine at a reduced price to children whose families lack insurance, have insufficient coverage or receive Medicaid.
Under the program, vaccine is distributed to 24 local health departments and more than 800 private doctors who have agreed to participate. Families are charged up to $15.47 to cover administrative costs though nobody is turned away if they can't afford to pay anything, Black said.