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A federal panel recommended Friday that anyone over 50 be allowed to get a flu shot, hoping to avoid widespread waste of the previously sought-after vaccine.
The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, a group that sets vaccine policy for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also approved access to the shots for anyone who shares a household with someone at high risk of flu complications.
The group declined to open vaccination to all comers, fearing that a stampede for the remaining shots by those who had been excluded from eligibility could squeeze out high-risk elderly people who have not yet gotten the vaccine.
Panel members said they hoped the relaxed rules, which will take effect Jan. 3, will encourage vaccination so that thousands of doses currently held by public clinics and private doctors will not be wasted. The vaccine, highly sought-after early in the season when it was perceived to be scarce, has turned out to be abundant because fewer Americans than usual have taken the shot.
"Vaccine cannot prevent influenza if it is in the refrigerator," said panel member Dr. William Schaffner,, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. "It will be a measure of our lack of success if vaccine remains unused at the end of the season."
The new rules cap 10 weeks of confusion that began with the revelation that the United States would lose half of this winter's flu vaccine supply.
That announcement was followed in many states by a rush for shots by those the government deemed still eligible, mostly people 65 and older. In most areas, however, the run on vaccine ended quickly. According to data released Thursday by the CDC, only 34 percent of those considered at highest risk of death or illness from flu have sought the shot this flu season, down from 54 percent the year before.
The panel's decision, reached unanimously in an emergency teleconference, comes on the heels of a survey done for the CDC in which 43 states and territories said they had enough vaccine and did not need the almost 5 million doses that remain to be delivered, 3.8 million of which the government bought to cushion the crisis.
Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution