- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 10, 2005

The number of U.S. children receiving flu vaccinations increased dramatically during the final months of 2004, while vaccinations for the elderly dropped, federal health officials said yesterday.

Nearly 60 percent of those in the high-risk age group of 6 months to 23 months were vaccinated against influenza in the last months of 2004, up from 7.7 percent in 2002. No data were available from 2003.

“It is wonderful news that so many children are being vaccinated against a potentially life-threatening illness like influenza,” which, on average, kills 37,000 Americans a year, said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Because of a vaccine shortage at the start of this flu season, the CDC sought to limit inoculations to those most at risk for serious complications from influenza. The government’s “priority” list for flu shots included young children, the elderly, people with chronic health conditions, pregnant women, and health-care workers.

This also marked the first year the flu vaccine was added to the CDC’s official childhood immunization schedule.

Data collected in surveys during the first three weeks of January by the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) found that 5.9 million children ages 6 months to 23 months (57.3 percent) were vaccinated during September through December.

Given the large proportion of children vaccinated in the last quarter, the flu vaccine has the highest first-year vaccination coverage of any childhood vaccine. It has exceeded the nearly 41 percent of children who received the pneumoccal vaccine that protects against meningitis and ear infection, when that vaccine became available in 2002.

And it’s well ahead of the 16 percent of youngsters who received the varicella, or chickenpox, vaccine when it was introduced in 1996, according to the CDC.

BRFSS surveys found that flu vaccination among adults in priority groups was 43.1 percent during the first months of the flu season. That contrasts with 8.3 percent coverage for adults who are not in priority groups and who undoubtedly had trouble finding flu shots.

Among the elderly, 59 percent of people 65 and older reported being vaccinated through December. But that’s down from 65.5 percent of seniors who reported this in BRFSS’ 2003 survey.

Von Roebuck, a CDC spokesman, said that, at this point, the reason for the drop is not clear. Asked if he believes some seniors were kept away by the reports of vaccine shortages, he said, “We’re asking the same question.”

About 3.5 million doses of flu vaccine remain available. Given that February is often the most serious month in terms of flu outbreaks, and because the influenza virus may circulate for several more weeks, the CDC still advises those at risk to get immunized.

Asked to assess the current flu season, Mr. Roebuck said there is still uncertainty.

“We’re seeing an increase in the number of cases, and there has been nothing to alert us as to whether this flu season has peaked or not.”

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