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There's a new way to fend off the flu this year: The first nasal-spray flu vaccine, an alternative to annual flu shots for the needle-phobic, is being shipped to doctors' offices and pharmacies.
The new vaccine, which can be given by health professionals or in some states by pharmacists, will be pricey at $46 per dose, compared with about $10 per dose for the injectable vaccine. Both protect against strains of flu expected to be in circulation during the coming flu season, which runs from November through March.
About 4 million to 6 million doses of FluMist will be produced by manufacturer MedImmune of Gaithersburg, Md.
That's a fraction of the 85.5 million doses of flu vaccine that will be available this year, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No shortages are expected, unlike previous years when production delays forced the CDC to prioritize immunizations to ensure that those most at risk of serious illness would be protected.
The CDC urges annual vaccination for anyone age 6 months and older who suffers chronic health problems such as heart or lung disease, and for people over age 65. But those groups will still have to roll up their sleeves for a needle-stick because the new spray vaccine is approved only for healthy children and adults ages 5 to 49.
The Food and Drug Administration limits use of the vaccine because in clinical studies involving more than 10,000 children, those under age 5 showed a slightly increased incidence of wheezing after receiving FluMist.
The vaccine was tested in only 511 people ages 50 to 64, so the FDA asked for more studies in older people. The vaccine should not be given to people with weakened immune systems or underlying illnesses, including diabetes and asthma.
Despite those limitations and the cost, which may be covered in part by health insurers, doctors welcome the new addition.
''The increase in cost reflects what it takes to develop a new vaccine in this day and age,'' says Janet McElhaney of the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington.
''The more people we can get vaccinated, the more benefit there is for public health,'' McElhaney says. ''For people who are averse to needles, this offers another way to get them vaccinated.''
It also may encourage more parents to get their younger children and teenagers vaccinated, which could cut down on outbreaks in schools and the resulting lost time from school and work.
Flu rarely causes life-threatening illness in school-age children, but they're the ones most likely to spread it, says James Young, president of research and development for MedImmune.
''They are the vectors,'' he says. ''They get it in school and bring it home to Mom and Grandma.''
The last two flu seasons have been relatively calm, McElhaney says, but ''that's the thing about flu. It can be mild for a couple of seasons, then we can be hard hit again.
''We have to make sure we don't become complacent.''
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