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Flu vaccine will go to more people beginning in January

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Starting Jan. 3, states that have extra supplies of flu vaccine should expand the pool of people eligible for flu shots to include anyone over 50 or who is a close contact of someone at highest risk for flu complications, according to an expert panel advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Several states, fearing vaccine would go unused if it were restricted to those at highest risk, already have started expanding distribution. Minnesota announced Friday that most of its counties have immunized health workers and others in high-risk categories and that the state would now offer vaccine to anyone who wants it.

But vaccine experts at the CDC say some states, including Rhode Island, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and New York as well as Washington, D.C., are still struggling to find enough vaccine to immunize their high-risk residents.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, a panel of experts that recommends federal vaccine policies, decided Friday to expand the list of priority groups to receive flu shots this season in areas where there is surplus vaccine.

At least 43 states have reported that they have enough vaccine to immunize residents who fall into the high-risk categories, including people over 65, anyone with a chronic health condition or babies 6 months to 23 months old.

The CDC has been able to obtain some extra doses from areas of plenty to redistribute in areas of need, but ''my sense is the magnitude of vaccine we've gotten back will not be enough to meet the need of states that say they do not have enough,'' says Jeanne Santoli of the CDC's National Immunization Program.

One hundred million doses of flu vaccine had been expected to be available this flu season, but on Oct. 5, vaccine maker Chiron had its license suspended because some product was contaminated, and the supply was cut by about 48 million doses. That left only Aventis Pasteur, which is producing 58 million doses, and MedImmune, which is making 3 million doses of nasal spray vaccine FluMist.

The CDC says more than 21 million doses of vaccine have been distributed since the shortage was announced, and another 3.5 million are in production.

Those doses, expected to be distributed in January, will be enough to meet the needs in states where there are shortages, Santoli says, but ''the issue is they want vaccine now. If they wait until January, they may not have takers.''

But Lance Rodewald of the CDC's immunization program says the flu season has barely begun and it's not too late to be vaccinated: ''We don't want to see vaccine go unused.''

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