Say ouch and avoid the bug

Flu shots: Record demand creates early supply problems but vaccine distribution system is improving.

November 14, 2001

GETTING a flu shot is a good idea -- but please use a little patience and judgment. There's still time for most people to get this important protection before flu season. Supplies of influenza vaccine will be up 20 percent from last year, but are arriving slower than expected.

Meantime, soaring public demand is peaking early, causing shortages and backlogs at clinics and doctor offices -- sometimes crowding out high-risk patients who need the vaccination early.

Pregnant women, the elderly, and those with chronic illness should be vaccinated right now, the state health department urges. If personal physicians don't have the vaccine, try private clinics or the local health department.

Successful awareness campaigns, the recent anthrax scare and temporary shortages last year prompted a lot more people to seek flu shots early this year.

But this season's exact vaccine formula was determined late, one manufacturer dropped out, and some doctors didn't order it because of last year's fiasco of early vaccine shortages, late oversupply and middleman price manipulation. The American Medical Association accused distributors of price-gouging. The federal General Accounting Office urged delivery reforms to ensure priority immunization of high-risk patients. So vaccine makers pledged to fill orders of small customers early this year and sell more product directly to doctors.

Record demand created new imbalances, but supplies are now twice those of last year. By month's end, 85 percent of this season's 85 million doses will be available.

A flu shot is 70 percent to 90 percent effective for normal people. It cuts the hospitalization risk for the elderly by 50 percent. Flu season's peak ranges from December to March, so everyone still has time.

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