- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 17, 2000

Medical researchers and health care professionals are concerned about delays and possible shortages of the influenza-virus vaccine this winter.

"We do know that there will be a delay in distribution of the vaccine, and there is a possibility of a shortage," says Charlis Thompson, a spokes-woman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "but we can't forecast the future. However, we hope soon to have some type of indication of how much will be available and when."

Influenza is a respiratory-tract infection that brings on unwelcome symptoms of fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, head-ache, muscle aches and extreme fatigue. Although every season is unique, the flu each year affects approximately 10 percent to 20 percent of the population, and some people develop life-threatening medical complications such as pneumonia. CDC documentation shows that the flu is responsible for 20,000 deaths and more than 100,000 hospitalizations annually.

According to the CDC, the anticipated 2000-2001 vaccine-supply delay will result from two reasons: One of the three flu-virus components of this year's batch has failed to grow well, vaccine manufacturers report, and the Food and Drug Administration has leveled regulatory action against two manufacturers licensed to distribute the vaccine in the United States.

The flu vaccine, which contains inactivated virus strains, optimally is administered between October and mid-November and is 70 percent to 90 percent effective. People must be freshly vaccinated every year as the viruses continually alter. A person infected with the flu virus develops antibodies against that virus; as the virus changes, the "older" antibody does not recognize the newer virus, and reinfection can occur.

The vaccine is updated each year to include the most current strains. Miss Thompson says this year's cocktail will include protection against two new strains Type A/Panama and Type A/New Caledonia as well as last year's Type B/Yamanashi.

A huge public-health campaign has been waged during the past several years to encourage people to receive flu vaccines, says Dr. Gigi El-Bayoumi, an associate professor of internal medicine at the George Washington University Medical Center. Any disruption in the routine "just will not be good. That's the first issue. The second is that it takes about six weeks to become fully immunized, so if there is a delay, people aren't fully protected once the season starts," she says.

The George Washington University Medical Center is planning its fourth annual flu-inoculation event, which traditionally has attracted 2,000 to 3,000 people per year. Although the event usually is scheduled at Halloween, Dr. El-Bayoumi says center directors "might push it to November, depending on vaccine availability."

According to Miss Thompson, the CDC is putting out the word to large companies that traditionally organize vaccination campaigns for their employees to postpone their efforts until November. However, she says, those people most affected by influenza infection people older than 65 and those with compromised immune systems should proceed with plans to get vaccinated.

Dr. El-Bayoumi says an ongoing study will determine whether a half-dose inoculation is as effective as a full dose for an otherwise healthy person; if so, many health care outlets might choose to reserve full dosages for high-risk patients.

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