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WASHINGTON, Sep 14, 2005 (United Press International via COMTEX) -- The flu season will soon be here, and federal health officials Wednesday urged those most at risk of complications -- the elderly and the infirm -- to get vaccinated immediately.
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has added a new twist to the flu-vaccination campaign this year, because officials urged inoculation for evacuees from the flooded areas of Mississippi and Louisiana. This is because crowded conditions in shelters can facilitate the spread of the disease, they said.
"Flu vaccine saves lives and is the very best way to prevent influenza," Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a news briefing.
Federal officials urged people over age 65, as well as those with chronic medical conditions, pregnant women, people who are immunosuppressed and healthcare workers, to receive vaccinations.
They also recommended that the elderly and the flood victims receive pneumococcal vaccinations, which protect against one form of pneumonia.
"We want to make sure the vaccine gets to those who need it first," Gerberding said. The vaccine will be made available to others after Oct. 24.
Gerberding noted vaccine manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur had donated 200,000 doses of flu vaccine for Katrina survivors and already has begun sending the medication to health departments in the Gulf Coast region.
Infants ages 6 months to 23 months and children ages 2 to 17 with chronic medical conditions, such as asthma and diabetes, also should be vaccinated this flu season.
Dr. William Schaffner, of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, said the flu "must be taken seriously by the healthcare community and the American public alike," adding that the disease causes 200,000 hospitalizations and 36,000 deaths annually in the United States alone.
Schaffner, who also is chair of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, said pneumococcus also can be a serious health threat, accounting for 40,000 hospitalizations and 4,800 deaths each year in the United States.
To make it easier for seniors to afford vaccination, Medicare is increasing its payments this year from $8 per shot to more than $18, said Dr. Mark McClellan, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Last year the anticipated supply of flu vaccine was cut in half because millions of doses that were supposed to be supplied by Chiron Corp. were found contaminated with bacteria and deemed unsafe. Chiron's facility in Marburg, Germany, which manufactures vaccine for countries outside the United States, experienced similar production problems earlier this summer.
Gerberding said it is not yet known how many flu shots will be available this year, but she noted officials currently are anticipating anywhere between 71 million and 90 million doses.
"We're not able to predict at this time how many doses Chiron will produce or when they will be available," she said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is conducting safety and potency checks of Chiron's vaccine.
"We have no reason to be concerned about that, but we're not making any firm statements until the tests are done and the lots are released," Gerberding said.
In addition to increasing reimbursement for flu shots, Medicare published a rule that requires nursing homes to vaccinate all of their residents, unless a patient refuses, McClellan said. The goal is to vaccine 90 percent of nursing-home residents against both the flu and pneumococcus, he said.
Dr. Cynthia Whitney, acting chief of the CDC's Respiratory Diseases Branch, said those at the highest risk for severe pneumococcal disease include people over age 65, those with weakened immune systems, nursing-home patients and those with chronic illness, such as diabetes, heart disease and lung disease.
Those who fall into one of those categories and are housed in a shelter following Hurricane Katrina also should receive the pneumococcal vaccine, Whitney said.
She noted that each year millions of people in the United States who should have received the pneumococcus vaccine still are not vaccinated -- even though most deaths from this disease occur in people who should have been inoculated.
Henry Bernstein, of the American Academy of Pediatrics, emphasized the importance of vaccinating infants ranging in age from 6 months to 23 months (those under 6 months cannot be vaccinated), as well as vaccinating 2- to 17-year-olds with asthma, diabetes or other chronic medical conditions.
These children "must receive a flu shot each and every year," Bernstein said. He noted that less than half of children who fall into those categories are vaccinated each year, which places them at a higher risk of suffering complications from the flu and being hospitalized.
To protect patients further, Dr. Ardis Hoven, of the American Medical Association, urged healthcare workers to be vaccinated.
"Every single doctor and nurse in America needs to make getting vaccinated a priority," Hoven said.
Gerberding said it was "critically important" for healthcare workers to be vaccinated, and she chastised the medical community for its low vaccination rate.
"It's at worst embarrassing and at best tragic that less than 50 percent of healthcare workers in this country get vaccinated annually," she said.
Hoven said vaccinating healthcare workers can help prevent them from transmitting the disease to patients and can reduce the chances they will acquire the disease at the healthcare setting and bring it home to their families.
A strain of avian influenza that has killed dozens of people in Asia appears to be spreading, and Gerberding said this is a concern for U.S. health officials. Bird flu is moving westward from Asia more "than we've ever seen before," she said, but so far there is no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission.
To be on the safe side, however, she said, authorities are taking precautions, including stockpiling antiviral drugs that have been shown to be effective against the virus.
Copyright 2005 by United Press International.