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Virulent Flu Strain Reaches Central Florida

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Dec. 17--The flu strain vexing the western United States has arrived in Central Florida with four cases confirmed in Orange County, health officials said Tuesday.

Lindsay Hodges, spokeswoman for the state Health Department, said the cases -- which follow two reported last week in Okaloosa County -- shouldn't send anyone into a panic. The new cases only confirm what health officials already suspected, that the Fujian influenza strain has arrived just as the region is reaching the peak of the flu season. "What's important to emphasize is that the flu is present in Florida, though activity is milder than in other parts of the country," Hodges said.

The cases were reported one day after the federal government announced it would try to ease the flu-vaccine shortage by purchasing 375,000 shots. Though it was not manufactured specifically for the Fujian strain of the flu, the vaccine is about 50 percent effective for those who manage to get it, health experts said.

The vaccine was produced by the Chiron Corp., federal Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Monday. The company manufactures the vaccine in Britain, but licenses it for sale in the United States.

The company sold the United States what was left from this year's production of the vaccine, said Bill Pierce, an HHS spokesman. The vaccine will arrive next month.

"We think this is all the supply that may well be out there," Pierce said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet to announce how much of this latest shipment of vaccine Florida will get, but Hodges said the state does know what they're doing with last week's purchase. Last week, Thompson announced that Aventis Pasteur Inc. had set aside 250,000 doses for the government -- 100,000 for adults, being shipped now, and 150,000 for children, also due to arrive next month.

The doses will be distributed throughout the country based on population. The state health department will use the same criteria for Florida.

Of the Aventis Pasteur shipment, the state's largest county, Miami-Dade, will receive 200 doses of the vaccine, Hodges said.

The next 11 largest counties, including Orange, Seminole, Volusia, Brevard and Polk, will receive 150 doses each.

The middle 25 counties, which include Osceola and Lake, will get 80 doses each. The state's smallest counties will each receive 30 doses.

The vaccine shortage developed after the nation's two producers of flu shots reported earlier this month that they had distributed their supplies, totaling about 80 million doses.

Florida's confirmed cases in Orange and Okaloosa are indicators of flu activity in the state, Hodges said. Since doctors don't routinely report flu to the state health department, the state tracks activity through a "sentinel surveillance system."

When volunteer doctors suspect the flu, they send samples from patients to public health laboratories for testing. Some of those samples are also forwarded the CDC in Atlanta.

The confirmed cases are "just a warning to us that it's around," said Bill Toth, the Orange County epidemiologist.

The CDC has advised that what's left be given to people most vulnerable to the flu: people 50 and older; residents of nursing homes or other long-term-care facilities; children older than 6 months with chronic heart or lung conditions, including asthma; and women who will be more than 3 months pregnant during flu season.

Health officials are encouraging people to wash their hands, use tissues, stay home when they feel sick and look into getting doses of the nasal vaccine FluMist if they haven't gotten their shots yet.

Federal officials have negotiated a deal that will allow state and local health departments to buy as many as 3 million doses of FluMist. Unlike the vaccine shots, FluMist is made with the live virus and should only be used by healthy people ages 5 to 49.

"We encourage individuals to use the appropriate precautions to protect themselves, their families and the community," Hodges said.

Andrea Perera can be reached at or 352-742-5930.

Deadly flu strain reaches Central FloridaOfficials confirmed four Orange County cases but said activity in the state is mild.


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