Health officials gear up for flu vaccination season

New recommendations say everyone 6 months and older should get immunized

August 11, 2010|By Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore Sun

This time last year, health officials were scrambling to protect kids going back to school against what was feared to be an exceptionally deadly flu outbreak. And while that scare has passed, they don't want parents to lower their guard as another academic year approaches.

The H1N1 flu pandemic was far milder than anticipated and was officially declared over this week by the World Health Organization. But it disproportionately affected young people, and the message is still about vaccination.

Officials point to a new recommendation from U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that everyone 6 months and older be immunized against seasonal flu rather than just vulnerable groups.

"We think it's a general positive that there was so much media attention on the importance of getting vaccinated for seasonal and H1N1 flu," said Greg Reed, who runs Maryland's Center for Immunization on behalf of the CDC. "People are now aware of how serious the flu can be."

The CDC reported about 11,700 deaths related to the H1N1 pandemic that peaked last October. Maryland health officials reported 45 lab-confirmed deaths, though many cases were not confirmed.

Five children in Maryland died of H1N1 flu-related illness, more than is typical from seasonal flu, which was temporarily crowded out last year. Generally, the seasonal flu kills an average of 36,000 people annually, including 600 to 1,000 in Maryland, according to the CDC.

Only a third of Americans usually get immunized for seasonal flu, which begins as early as October. But many more were immunized last year because of media attention given to H1N1 and early shortages of vaccine, which was developed in a shortened time frame.

Officials believe more will heed the call for vaccination this year. The process should be easier because there is only one shot for seasonal and H1N1 flu expected to circulate (except for children 6 months to 8 years old, who will need two shots unless they have had two previously.) And no shortages — or long lines — are anticipated.

Last year, all H1N1 vaccine was administered at public clinics, including some in schools. And there will be some low-cost and free clinics this fall for seasonal flu, but doctors, drugstores and other private vendors will administer the bulk of vaccine.

They should have vaccine soon, as manufacturers have begun shipping supplies. For now, local health departments are focusing on vaccinations required by Maryland schools, including chicken pox, polio and whooping cough. There's no requirement for flu shots.

Howard County's health department plans school-based flu clinics the third week of October. Baltimore County schools plan clinics in lower-income schools, and school nurses will send information home about how to avoid colds and the flu.

"We want to make sure the kids are as protected as we can get them," said Charles Herndon, a spokesman for Baltimore County schools.

In Baltimore City, the health department will begin weekend clinics for kids and adults as soon as vaccine arrives, according to Dr. Anne Bailowitz, chief medical officer.

She said that the city has long recommended immunization for those 6 months and older — and she wants it to become a requirement for schoolchildren. But even without such a requirement, she expected more demand for vaccinations.

Last year, the city vaccinated 31,500 against H1N1 flu and 11,000 against seasonal flu.

"That was huge," she said. "Our typical maximum is 5,000, and we did over twice that for seasonal flu alone. We're looking forward to maintaining that level."

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