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Flu Update

Last-Minute Shots

Tuesday, February 1, 2005; Page HE03

Get the Shot or Not? Now that Maryland and the District have lifted all restrictions on who may receive flu shots, you may wonder whether there's any point in getting one so late in the season. We did. So we asked around.

Because vaccine campaigns typically begin in the fall, it is easy to assume that the season peaks during the holiday season. No so, according to Greg Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic's Vaccine Research Group in Rochester, Minn.

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"About 80 percent of the influenza outbreaks in the United States come in January or later," Poland said. "This year is a great demonstration of that. We had very few cases, in October, November and December. . . . Since January, the cases have been steadily rising." Poland and officials from Maryland, the District and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agreed that the paucity of early season cases combined with wide publicity about last fall's vaccine shortage may have driven away prospective customers, leaving millions of doses at risk of going to waste. But they say there's plenty available now and it's not too late to benefit.

"I would expect that we'll see influenza cases into late February and March," said Poland. "So getting the vaccine now and waiting 10 to 14 days [the time it takes for the vaccine to become fully effective] would still offer you protection."

How to get it if you want it. Even without the restrictions, it may take more effort than you'd like. Federal and regional health officials recommend calling your doctor first and -- if he can't help you -- your local health department next.

Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, acknowledging the hit-and-miss availability of vaccine this year, is trying to serve as a sort of clearinghouse, matching providers with vaccine to spare and those in need. "There are many doctors who say that they have flu vaccine and want to know what they should do with it," said Greg Reed, program manager for Maryland Center for Immunization. "We try to find buyers for the excess."

In Virginia, where the state is permitting individual jurisdictions to lift restrictions where supply meets anticipated demand, the advice is the same: Call your doc first, then the health department.

The District and some suburbs are scheduling clinics and walk-ins, but officials say those are unlikely to be as common or as chaotic as those held last fall.

-- Gregory Mott

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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