WASHINGTON – Maryland public health officials are trying to stave off any scramble for flu shots this year by following federal guidelines to provide vaccine first to those who need it most.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said this week there is an “optimistic outlook” as to the number of available flu vaccines this year, but she cautioned against the nation developing a false sense of security.
Gerberding, in a national news conference, called for voluntary, tiered scheduling of immunizations so that high-priority groups receive vaccines first, with other groups to follow after Oct. 24.
“We can never be 100 percent certain about how many doses we are going to have,” said Gerberding. “This year we want to make sure that we get vaccines to the people that need it the most.”
High-priority groups include adults age 65 or older, children age 6 to 23 months, patients with chronic health conditions, employees of health care facilities and pregnant women. Hurricane Katrina victims living in crowded shelters have also been made a high-priority group.
According to the CDC, the nation’s four flu vaccine providers, Sanofi Pasteur Inc., Chiron Corp., GlaxoSmithKline PLC and Gaithersburg-based MedImmune Inc. are projected this year to produce 71 million to 97 million doses of the three injectable vaccines — Fluzone, Fluvirin and Fluarix — and the live, viral nasal spray vaccine FluMist.
Last year, British regulators prohibited Chiron Corp. from shipping its Fluvirin vaccine because it was contaminated, leaving the United States with less than half of its expected flu vaccine and in a national panic.
Despite last year’s shortage, most counties ended up receiving more vaccines than they originally ordered through sharing among the counties, private donations and state supplies. Montgomery County, for example, ordered 2,000 doses last year and initially ended up with only 700-800 doses, causing the county to do its first-ever flu lottery for high-risk victims, said Carol Jordan, director of communicable disease and epidemiology for Montgomery County’s Department of Health and Human Services. An unexpected 21,680 people registered, causing officials to screen callers for 4 days straight. Eventually, about 4,400 dosages were finally given out due to reallocation. “Whenever there is a word of shortage or a delay, you’re always going to get an overwhelming response,” said Jordan.
Maryland county officials report they don’t anticipate a shortage problem this flu season. Montgomery County has accumulated 180 of its expected 5,000 doses, and Allegany County received 620 of its 3,100 expected doses, according to their health officials. Caroline County has half its doses, its health officials said.
Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Chief of Clinical Epidemiology Dr. Jeffrey Roche cautioned that “not all vaccines might be ready at the beginning of the season” and that it might “take months” for all shipments to arrive. Based on CDC projections, Roche said Maryland should “have enough vaccine to cover historical demand and possibly have enough for a small surplus.”
Popularly known as “the flu,” influenza, characterized by a high fever, chills, dry cough, headache, runny nose, sore throat and muscle and joint pain is one of the most severe viral respiratory illnesses occurring during winter. CDC figures show flu annually contributes to 36,000 deaths and 200,000 hospitalizations in the United States.
The vaccines provide three to four months protection — the duration of the peak flu season, which typically runs from November to February. It takes two weeks upon receiving the shot to form immunity.