By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 25, 2008
A record-setting amount of influenza vaccine is available this fall for a record-setting number of people being advised to get it.
That was the message yesterday from officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and several private organizations, who convened in Washington to urge Americans to get flu shots.
The number of people targeted for flu vaccination has grown steadily in recent years and now constitutes 86 percent of the population.
For the first time, the federal government is recommending this year that children 5 to 18 years old get vaccinated, along with the previously targeted group of 6 months to 5 years. That will add about 30 million children to the number advised to get the shots.
CDC recommends that children ages 6 months to 8 years get two flu shots a month apart, because a single shot may not be enough to fully protect them.
Over the last decade, flu seasons have been marred sporadically by shortages or excesses of vaccine and, in the case of last year, relatively poor protection against the strains of influenza causing illness.
None of those problems is anticipated this year, said Julie Louise Gerberding, CDC's director.
"I have a smile on my face this year because we are looking at a wonderful supply of flu vaccine," she said at news conference at the National Press Club.
Manufacturers will make about 145 million doses. While the number of people targeted is substantially higher -- 261 million -- not everyone will choose to or be able to get vaccinated.
The targeted groups also include pregnant women, people 50 and older; younger adults with chronic illnesses such as diabetes and asthma; health-care workers; people in contact with children younger than 6 months; and people in contact with those who are at high risk of flu's complications, such as those with AIDS.
The vaccine consists of three killed flu viruses -- two from the influenza A family and one from influenza B. The components are dropped and replaced by updated ones each year as influenza viruses circulating the world evolve. This season, all three of the components are new, an unusual event.
Last year, the vaccine was poorly matched to the strains of flu virus in circulation. It was 58 percent effective in preventing infection with influenza A strains and did not protect against infection by influenza B at all. Its overall effectiveness was 44 percent -- about half what it is when the vaccine is well matched to the season's viruses.
The virus strains that circulated in the Southern Hemisphere's just-ended flu season are covered by this season's vaccine, said Daniel B. Jernigan, a physician in CDC's influenza division.
A nasal spray containing live but weakened strains of vaccine is available for people ages 2 to 49.
It is especially important for health-care workers to get vaccinated, as they can spread flu to people at high risk for complications and death. Last year, only about 40 percent of health workers were immunized.
"This is a patient-safety issue," Gerberding said.
Last year, 72 percent of people older than 65 got flu shots. Influenza contributes to the deaths of about 36,000 people a year, most of them elderly, although the number dying directly from the infection is much smaller.
The recommendation to vaccinate all children 6 months and older came after better surveillance revealed that thousands are hospitalized each winter for influenza. Last winter, 86 died.
A recent study showed that pregnant women who get flu vaccines pass protective antibodies to their fetuses and newborns.