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States Ration Flu Shots

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Fears of flu vaccine shortages are prompting lines at clinics, and health officials are scrambling to figure out how to ration supplies in several parts of the country hit hardest by what is shaping up as the worst flu season in years.

Health officials in several states, including Texas and Colorado, urged over the weekend that doctors prioritize remaining vaccine supplies to ensure that health care workers and people who are at the highest risk of serious illness or death are immunized.

Flu kills 36,000 Americans a year on average and hospitalizes 114,000. This year is expected to be worse, in part because the vaccine is not a perfect match for the strains now in circulation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday that all 83 million doses of vaccine made for this flu season have been distributed. According to a sampling over the weekend of some states dealing with the potent flu and the vaccine shortage:

* Colorado has reported more than 3,600 cases this season, and six children have died. The Denver Post reported Sunday that hundreds of people lined up for the vaccine over the weekend.

* In New Mexico, where three children died of suspected flu during Thanksgiving weekend, hospitals have been overwhelmed, emergency medicine specialist George Molzen of Albuquerque said Sunday.

* Virginia's health commissioner said supplies are running low even though officials say they have tripled the number of flu doses sent to local health departments compared with typical years. The last doses are being sent out today, and ''after that's gone, we won't have any more to send out,'' health department spokeswoman Trina Lee said late Sunday.

* In Los Angeles, health officials say they have distributed 138,000 doses of vaccine, but the manufacturer denied a request for 7,000 more.

Because more people than usual were vaccinated in October and November, doctors in some regions of the country are in danger of running out.

''It's unprecedented,'' Len Lavenda of flu vaccine maker Aventis said Saturday. The company produces more than half the nation's vaccine supply. ''We cannot remember running out. In most years, we destroy millions of doses of vaccine'' because they go unused.

Lavenda said the company shipped 43 million doses this year, 11 million more than had been pre-ordered. The vaccine takes at least four months to produce and is made fresh each year.

New York Health Commissioner Antonia Novella said Friday that ''near-record numbers'' are being vaccinated this year, but private doctors may have vaccine on hand. Another option: FluMist, a nasal spray vaccine that can be used by healthy people ages 5-49.

Those at high risk of serious complications such as pneumonia include people 50 and older; anyone with chronic health conditions, including asthma; and pregnant women. The CDC has encouraged vaccination of babies 6-23 months old because they are as likely as people over age 65 to be hospitalized for flu.

The CDC says flu is widespread in 13 states. Only Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., report no cases.

After three consecutive mild seasons, the severity of this year's flu has caught many off-guard, worrying health officials even in states not yet hard-hit.

Florida Health Secretary John Agwunobi said Friday that there is no shortage in his state, but he has ordered an inventory of vaccine just in case.

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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