WASHINGTON -- Most Americans, especially the elderly and young children, should get vaccinated against flu in the coming months, federal health officials recommended yesterday. After dealing with past vaccine shortages, the officials expect there will be sufficient supplies available.
Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommended the vaccinations for adults 50 and older, children ages 6 months to 5 years and people with chronic diseases, as well as all relatives and health workers who take care of them.
She also called on doctors and clinics to immunize anyone else who asks.
"Supply is not a restriction," Gerberding said. After supplies were halved two years ago because of problems at a key manufacturing plant, officials expect there to be at least 100 million doses of the flu vaccine available this year, the most ever.
Vaccine makers began shipping doses last month and expect to have shipped three-quarters of this year's supply by the end of this month, Gerberding said.
Flu sends 200,000 Americans to the hospital each year, killing 36,000. The virus is transmitted from person to person, usually through coughing and sneezing. Many children, in particular, spread the flu.
"Now is the time for parents to call their child's pediatrician and schedule an appointment" for a flu vaccination, said Dr. Julia A. McMillan, a Johns Hopkins professor who also works with the American Academy of Pediatrics.
This is the first flu season in which the government has recommended that children 2 to 5 years old get immunized against the virus; previously, the recommendation was for children ages 6 months to 23 months.
Dr. Mark B. McClellan, who runs Medicare, said the program covers the entire cost for beneficiaries 65 and older. Vaccines are available by injection or nasal spray.
The federal health officials also recommended that Americans pair their yearly immunization against flu with a one-time vaccination against the pneumococcal virus, which prevents pneumonia.
Most insurers, Medicare and Medicaid cover that vaccination, said Dr. William G. Plested III, president of the American Medical Association.
The officials spoke at a news conference meant to raise public awareness of the benefits from vaccination and to quell common myths, such as the misperceptions that the flu vaccine can actually cause flu and that it can't provide any help if taken after November or December. An estimated half of those who should get immunized don't, a situation officials want to avoid with adequate supplies.
"We hope this is not an embarrassment of riches. We would like to get the vaccine used," said Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University professor who is vice president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.