Scramble for vaccine as flu season heats up

(AP)
January 14, 2013 2:59:01 PM PST
Missed flu-shot day at the office last fall? And all those "get vaccinated" ads? A scramble for shots is under way as late-comers seek protection from a miserable flu strain already spreading through much of the country and North Carolina.

Federal health officials said Friday that there is still some flu vaccine available and it's not too late to benefit from it. But people may have to call around to find a clinic with shots still on the shelf, or wait a few days for a new shipment.

Local pharmacies said Monday they're having a hard time keeping vaccine in stock.

At Hayes Barton pharmacy in Raleigh, the store was down to its last three flu shots Monday morning, and they were gone by noon. In a typical flu season, the pharmacy immunizes 750 people against the flu. This year, they've already hit 1000 flu shots.

"This year, because of all the coverage and just the intensity of the flu, we have a lot more demand in January than we typically do, so that's why places are running out right now," said pharmacist Brent Talley.

"We're hearing of spot shortages," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It's normal for vaccine supplies to start running low at this time of year. The traditional time to get vaccinated is in the fall, so that people are protected before influenza starts spreading.

Indeed, manufacturers already have shipped nearly 130 million doses to doctors' offices, drugstores and wholesalers, out of the 135 million doses they had planned to make for this year's flu season. At least 112 million have been used so far.

The nation's largest manufacturer, Sanofi Pasteur, said Friday that it still has supplies of two specialty vaccines, a high-dose shot for seniors, and an under-the-skin shot for certain adults, available for immediate shipment. But it also is working to eke out a limited supply of its traditional shots - some doses that it initially hadn't packaged into syringes, said spokesman Michael Szumera. They should be available late this month.

And MedImmune, the maker of the nasal spray vaccine FluMist, said it has 620,000 extra doses available.

Flu vaccine is complicated to brew, with supplies for each winter made months in advance and at the numbers expected to sell. Although health officials recommend a yearly flu vaccination for nearly everybody, last year 52 percent of children and just 39 percent of adults were immunized. Most years, leftover doses have to be thrown out.

But health officials say if you haven't been immunized, you shouldn't give up. Get a shot if you can. It does take two weeks for full protection to kick in. Still, health officials say it's a good idea to be vaccinated even this late, especially for older people, young children and anyone with medical conditions such as heart or lung diseases that put them at high risk of dangerous flu complications. Flu season does tend to be worst in January and February, but it can run through March.

A little prevention also goes a long way. Wash your hands often, and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Viruses can spread by hand, not just through the air. Also, cough in your elbow, not your hand. When you're sick, protect others by staying home.

And people who are in those high-risk groups should call a doctor if they develop symptoms, added CDC spokesman Tom Skinner. They might be prescribed antiviral medication, which works best if given within the first 48 hours of symptoms.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Resources has plenty of information online for more, including where to find flu shots. Click here for more.

Associated Press reporter Lauran Neergaard contributed to this report

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