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Potent Virus Brings Warnings To Get Your Flu Shot

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WASHINGTON -- Public health experts, worried that the coming flu season could bring an especially nasty virus and thousands of deaths, Tuesday urged Americans to get flu shots.

A rare abundance of 85.5 million doses of flu vaccine has enabled the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to suspend its usual recommendation that doctors vaccinate only those in the high-risk groups before giving the vaccine to others.

''We have no reason to wait,'' CDC Director Julie Gerberding said at a briefing. ''We want everyone to go out and get their vaccine now.''

The flu season drawing to a close in Australia and New Zealand features an especially virulent virus that is headed our way this fall, Gerberding said.

''We can't be complacent,'' said William Schaffner of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

Influenza kills an average of 36,000 in the USA each year, new research shows, nearly twice the previous estimate. About 20% of the population will become infected, and 114,000 people will be hospitalized. Most vulnerable are people 50 and older and those with chronic heart, lung and kidney diseases.

''That's an horrifically high number for a preventable disease,'' says Donald Palmisano, president of the American Medical Association.

The CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics also recommend vaccinations for healthy children 6 months to 23 months old because they are more likely to be hospitalized for flu-related complications.

Older children also could be at risk. A Michigan study last year found 10 severe flu cases and four deaths in previously healthy people under 21, said Nancy Cox, director of the CDC's flu branch.

Yet just 70 million people get a flu shot every year, roughly half the number in high-risk groups. Fewer than one-third of children and adults with asthma and two-thirds of those older than 65 are vaccinated, even though Medicare covers flu shots, which cost $10 to $15 a dose. A new nasal spray vaccine, made with a live, weakened virus, costs $46 a dose wholesale. Doctors may charge $10 to administer it.

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

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