OVER 40 MILLION Americans - the young, the elderly and the chronically ill - are particularly susceptible to the different strains of influenza. Not only are they more likely to become ill with it, they are also more likely to die from it. Federal officials estimate that only 8 million of those people are immunized against flu every year by private physicians. And the few state-sponsored programs that exist reach only 650,000 more. Yet, despite those facts, and the predictions of an outbreak of flu this year, the House of Representatives last week voted against a federal program aimed at immunizing over 8 million more people in that high-risk segment of the population.

The House, in voting against spending $15 million to help states start or bolster their immunization programs, was reacting - mindlessly, in our view - to the 1976 swine-flu immunization debacle. Nearly all of the debate on the House floor seemed to equate the two programs. But the proposed federal effort, sponsored by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, is an entirely different proposition from the federal crash program two years ago to provide a program of vaccination against a potential outbreak of swine flu.

Just to begin with, the program defeated by the House has nothing to do with swine flu. The federal aid would simply help state officials to begin or expand flu vaccination programs to reach more of those high-risk people: the young, the elderly and the chronically ill, who for various reasons - among them poverty - don't get to a private physician. The purpose of the state programs is to bring about the immunization of a limited number of people - those most likely to get the flu - with vaccines that have been used for years. Federal health officials estimate that the program the House voted against could save as many as 1,200 lives, not to mention the costs to those who survive the flu but are bedridden at home or hospitalized. We have in mind time lost from work, as well as medical expenses - including additional outlays for flu treatment under federal medical-care programs.

In short, the proposed federal air for state immunization programs is a measured and modest effort to save money as well as lives. Although the House acted unwisely, the Senate Appropriations Committee can - and should - rescue the program when the matter comes before it today for vote.