WASHINGTON - Two months after a flu vaccine shortage spread alarm throughout the country, U.S. health officials moved yesterday to ease restrictions on the supply and make shots available to many adults age 50 and over.
An influential federal panel said that in areas where supply is adequate, individuals age 50-64 should be allowed to obtain flu shots, at the discretion of local health officials.
The move by U.S. officials was prompted by scattered accounts of flu vaccine wasting on shelves, despite the shortage.
A mild flu season, combined with the October spectacle of lengthy vaccine lines, may have discouraged many senior citizens from receiving shots, experts say. Their abstentions remain a concern to public health officials, who point out that the flu season will peak sometime in early 2005.
"In most communities we're still targeting vaccine to the people in the highest-priority groups," said Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "The challenge is that in some places, health departments and private providers currently do not have enough demand from people in those priority groups."
Although many people have found it difficult or impossible to obtain flu vaccine, surpluses have emerged in various regions, including parts of the East Coast, Midwest and West.
Yesterday, Minnesota health officials lifted their restrictions, subject to continued availability of the vaccine.
"We have directed flu vaccine to 100 percent of our nursing homes and long-term care facilities, and we have made every effort to ensure that high-risk Minnesotans have had an opportunity to get flu shots this year. But we have about 60,000 doses left in the state that could go unused if we don't take this step," said Minnesota Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach.
"Vaccine cannot prevent influenza if it is in the refrigerator," said panel member Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. "It will be a measure of our lack of success if vaccine remains unused at the end of the season."
During the week ending Dec. 11, New York was the only state with a widespread flu outbreak, according the most recent data from the CDC.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.