- The Washington Times - Monday, October 24, 2005

Come one, come all: Flu shots are ready and plentiful — and all are welcome. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lifted restrictions yesterday that set aside immunizations for at-risk priority populations, including those displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

The agency’s message to the public? Roll up those sleeves. Everyone older than 6 months should be vaccinated to reduce the chance of getting the illness, which kills 36,000 people a year and sends an additional 200,000 to the hospital with complications.

Last year’s flu-shot panic will not be repeated. With four labs manufacturing the vaccine, shortages are not expected.

The flu season typically lasts from October to May, often peaking in February, but outbreaks already have been reported in nine states, the CDC said.

“In an era when new and re-emerging diseases, such as the H5N1 avian-flu virus, are potential public health threats, Americans should not forget to take proper precautions to protect their health,” said Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, director of the American Public Health Association.

The District-based group also is urging everyone to get vaccinated, and has called on Congress and the White House to develop regional flu-preparedness plans and to establish a federal vaccine-purchase program for uninsured adults.

A CDC study released last week found that not enough Americans get flu shots. The agency most likely will fall short of its goal to immunize 90 percent of those older than 65 and 60 percent of adults with high-risk conditions by 2010. Last year, two-thirds of seniors and a quarter of high-risk adults received the vaccine.

However, widespread immunization has cultural complications.

Fewer than 50 percent of older blacks and Hispanics were immunized last year. The CDC blames the low numbers on misconception. Among those who refuse a flu shot, many erroneously think the shots cause flu, while others have “a strong distrust of the government, physicians and drug companies,” according to an assessment of the two populations.

The CDC is recommending that physicians make compelling “emotional appeals” to reluctant minority patients, stressing that personal immunization also can protect the rest of the family, particularly grandchildren.

Researchers also are investigating the role of family dynamics and the flu. Preschoolers, particularly those in day care, drive flu epidemics, according to findings from Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital Boston.

“The data suggests that when kids are sneezing, the elderly begin to die,” study director Dr. John Brownstein said.

The analysis, based on data from emergency rooms and two national epidemiological surveillance systems, recommends that public immunization policies be formulated around who is spreading the disease, rather than who is at risk for it.

Meanwhile, health officials nationwide continue to stress that October and November are the optimal months to receive a flu vaccine. It typically takes two weeks to develop immunity to flu after receiving the shot.

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