- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 21, 2001

The bad news: The peak of flu season has not hit yet, officials at the Centers for Disease Control say.

However, that is countered with two bits of good news: An adequate supply of the flu vaccine is available, and getting a shot now will still provide protection for this season.

"It's not too late to get a flu shot," says Chuck Fallis, a CDC spokes-man. "It will take 10 to 14 days to go into effect, but since flu season usually lasts through April, we are urging people to call their local health department or doctor's office and get a shot."

The CDC estimates that 5 million doses of the flu vaccine are still available.

It is especially important for those in high-risk groups such as anyone older than 65 years old, diabetics, or anyone with a compromised immune system or chronic lung disease to get vaccinated, Mr. Fallis says.

In an average flu season, 20,000 people die and more than 100,000 are hospitalized because of complications, according to the CDC.

There were widespread reports in the fall of a vaccine shortage because of production problems with two of the three companies that manufacture the vaccine, says Susan Randall, manager of clinical services for Inova HealthSource.

At Inova, which sponsors the local "Fight the Flu" campaign in Northern Virginia, doses of the vaccine received early in the season were earmarked to be used for the highest-risk patients and hospital workers, Ms. Randall says.

"We felt the urgency to vaccinate hospital staff, and that made us temporarily short," she says. "In D.C. and Maryland, where Fight the Flu is sponsored by Medstar Health Visiting Nurse Association, they had a shortage as well."

Ms. Randall says the shortage was short-lived, and Fight the Flu has administered more than 65,000 doses since November. The campaign will continue through the end of the month, she says.

Meanwhile, the flu has been slow to come to the mid-Atlantic area this season, Mr. Fallis says.

"Fortunately, the flu is slower than at this time last season," he says. "At this time last year, 20 states had reported widespread or regional activity. This year, as of Jan. 1, only nine states have reported regional activity, and there has been no widespread activity. It is hard to predict where it will go from here. During 14 of the last 18 years, flu season peaked in January."

Maryland and Virginia are two of the nine states reporting regional activity, Mr. Fallis says.

The flu specimens recorded this season have been Type A/Panama, Type A/New Caledonia and Type B/Beijing, all of which are targeted in the 2000-2001 vaccine, Mr. Fallis says.

Symptoms of the flu include a sudden onset of high fever (100 to 103 degrees), headache, sore throat, cough and weakness, Ms. Randall says.

"The sudden onset is the key," she says. "People feel fine in the morning, then later in the day, they can hardly move."

Typical duration of the virus is seven to 10 days, Ms. Randall says. Treatment includes rest, fluids and medications such as Tylenol to reduce fever and body aches.

Prescription anti-viral medications are available to reduce the flu's duration, but to be effective, that medication must be started within 24 to 48 hours after the onset of symptoms, she says.

The flu vaccine is 70 to 90 percent effective, Ms. Randall says.

"Not everybody gets 100 percent protection," she says. "It is based on how a person's immune system is already working. In a frail, elderly person, the drug may only be about 40 percent effective, but it may prevent hospitalization, so that is good. In the elderly, the flu can be a very serious thing."

For locations of Fight The Flu clinics in Maryland, the District and Virginia, call 877/895-5-BUG. Shots cost $15. There is no charge for Medicare Part B recipients who present their Medicare cards.

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