Seniors and children first

December 11, 2003

HEADACHE. Chills. Cough. Fever. Body aches. Stuffy nose. Sore throat. One in five Americans will experience these wretched symptoms between now and next spring. For the majority, that's all a case of influenza means - a week of misery. But for certain people, chiefly older adults, young children and those with chronic illnesses, the flu is potentially life-threatening.

That's why the possible flu vaccine shortage calls for a simple prescription: Take a deep breath, relax and keep some perspective. Most people don't need to rush to the nearest clinic. Indications are that the supply of flu vaccine is dwindling (as it usually is in December each year). The remainder should be made available to those who are considered to be at high risk. They include:

People age 50 or older or residents of nursing homes or long-term care facilities.

Anyone with heart or lung disease, including asthma.

Those with chronic metabolic diseases, including diabetes, and those with kidney disease, a weakened immune system or HIV.

Children up to age 18 who are on long-term aspirin therapy (and could be in danger of developing Reye's syndrome after the flu).

Women who will be more than three months pregnant during the flu season.

Health care and nursing home workers and others who have regular contact with people who are considered at-risk (including family or others who live with them).

Health officials recommend that children 6 to 23 months old and caregivers of children less than 6 months old consider getting a flu shot as well.

Don't fit any of those criteria? Be a mensch and don't go looking for a shot. While the flu outbreak appears to have arrived early and may turn out to be worse than in recent years, the fact that 80 million or more people have gotten vaccinations should reduce the risk of infection for everyone. To better improve the odds, talk to your doctor about getting the nasal flu vaccine or a dose of the new antiviral drugs (Tamiflu, Flumadine or Symmetrel). Or you might just simply wash your hands and avoid touching people with the flu. The odds of avoiding the flu are still in your favor.

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