- The Washington Times - Monday, October 18, 2004

From combined dispatches

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said yesterday that enough flu vaccine will be available for most people who need it and told seniors to stop standing in long lines to get a shot.

“We want people to relax,” Mr. Thompson said at a news conference. “The flu season is not here.”

Seniors around the country have been standing in lines at shopping plazas and grocery stores to get flu shots since the shortage was announced this month. British regulators stopped shipments from Chiron Corp., which had made millions of flu shots earmarked for the United States. The shutdown cut the U.S. supply of flu shots almost in half.

Mr. Thompson said the flu-vaccine supply will be reallocated to parts of the country where it is needed most. Senior citizens and young children are most at risk for severe complications from the flu.

“We are looking all over the regions to find out where there is a shortage, and we will redeploy the resources to make sure the seniors get the vaccine first,” he said. He noted that 91 percent of deaths from the flu deaths last year were people who were 65 or older.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” that only a few cases of the flu have been reported this season, and that 20 million doses of flu vaccine soon would be available for seniors.

“We are reassuring people that vaccine is on the way,” she said.

Area health officials yesterday urged residents to practice preventive health measures.

“The flu shot is only one part of preventing or reducing the flu,” said Dr. Susan Allan, public health director for Arlington County. “There are things people can do if they don’t get the shot to reduce their chances of getting the illness.”

Dr. Allan, with other members of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ (COG) Health Officials Committee, said residents can reduce their chances of catching the flu simply by washing their hands properly or covering their mouths when they sneeze.

Other preventive measures mentioned by officials include staying home from work or school when sick, avoiding close contact with those who are sick, and drinking plenty of fluids.

Officials hope that such health practices will prevent the spread of the flu as physicians in public and private health sectors work to allocate doses of the vaccine to high-risk patients.

“Some doctors who ordered and have extra doses are asking how they can turn over the remaining vaccine,” said Dr. Gregg Pane, interim director for the D.C. Department of Health. “I’m really encouraged by what I’ve seen. People are pulling together on this.”

Last week at the request of congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Mr. Pane enacted an emergency rule in the District requiring health care providers to limit the distribution of vaccine to those in high-risk categories. Vaccine providers giving shots to patients not in the high-risk categories can be charged with a misdemeanor and fined up to $1,000.

On Friday, officials from the CDC assured Mrs. Norton that the District would be receiving 100 percent of its ordered doses for children 6 months to 2 years old. The CDC also said the District would be treated on par with the states in deciding where remaining vaccine doses will be allocated.

Mr. Thompson advised people to seek the vaccination shot from their doctor or a clinic. If that fails, they should contact the CDC in Atlanta, he said.

The number of vaccine manufacturers must be increased to avoid future shortages, he said. For that to happen, Congress must remove liability for vaccine makers and the government must commit to buying millions of doses every year so the producers are assured of a “ready market,” he said.

Vaccines — particularly flu vaccine, which is good only for the year for which it is made — seldom are profitable. Most years, a few million doses go unsold and are thrown away.

Mr. Thompson was in Tampa, Fla., to announce that his agency had joined a lawsuit by the state of Florida against a Fort Lauderdale company accused of trying to sell flu vaccine at inflated prices. The state of Kansas also has sued.

ASAP Meds Inc., which does business as Meds-Stat, has denied price-gouging accusations and said it will fight the lawsuits.

Mr. Thompson said 20 million doses for seniors and 4 million doses for children are being shipped out at a rate of about 3 million per week.

Flu season runs from October through May, although Dr. Pane said he does not expect this year’s flu season to begin until as late as December. Symptoms include fever, aching muscles, sore throat, chills, coughing and stuffy nose.

According to CDC estimates, about 114,000 Americans are hospitalized and 36,000 die of the flu each year. About 92 children younger than 5 die of the flu each year.

Gary Emerling contributed to this report.

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