updated 12/23/2003 6:09:15 PM ET 2003-12-23T23:09:15

Nearly half of the Americans who did not get a flu vaccine this year said they thought it was unnecessary, says an Associated Press poll taken at a time health officials are scrambling to cope with a vaccine shortage during a severe flu season.

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Among the two-thirds of Americans who did not get the shot were many people who are at risk, including a sizable number of seniors and a majority of young children, according to the poll conducted for the AP by Ipsos-Public Affairs.

Vaccine shortages were cited by only 6 percent of those who did not get the shot.

Makers of the flu vaccine in this country said earlier this month they have run out of supplies
and are not able to meet a surge of demand resulting from fears of a particularly harsh flu season.

Attitudes tough to change
Health officials are looking for ways to build public interest in the flu vaccine so more doses will be available in future years, Dr. William Schaffner of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases said. But changing public attitudes about the vaccine is tough, he concedes.

“Once it’s summer and you’re out on the beach,” he said, “memory about influenza and the desire for a vaccine fades.”

About 83 million doses of injected flu vaccine were made this year — enough for less than a third of the U.S. population.

Health officials have been working to shift the scattered remaining doses to parts of the country where they are most needed.

An alternative vaccine, which can be used by healthy people between the ages of 5 and 49, is the nasal spray called Flu Mist. Between 4 million and 5 million doses were manufactured, but only about 400,000 doses had been sold by mid-November.

In the AP-Ipsos poll, about a third, or 35 percent, said they got a flu vaccine while 65 percent said they did not. Women were more likely than men to get a flu shot and older adults were significantly more likely to get the flu shot than younger adults.

Of those between 50 and 64, almost half (44 percent) got the flu shot, while three-fourths of those 65 and older got flu shots.

Walter Skroko, a retiree from Joliet, Ill., says he’s been getting the shots for the last 30 years and he never questioned whether he would get a flu shot this year.

“I get one very year,” he said, explaining: “I’m 85 years old.”

The poll found that half had their flu shots paid for with insurance while the remainder were split between paying for it themselves or having their employers cover it.

Those who face the highest risk from the flu are seniors, people with chronic medical conditions, infants and toddlers and pregnant women.

Still, seven in 10 parents said they have not gotten their children vaccinated; almost three in 10 parents have done so. Experts say this year could be worse in terms of flu deaths, which normally run at about 36,000 each year.

The deaths of children in some hard-hit states have caused a clamor for more vaccines.

Health officials estimate that 10 percent to 20 percent of the population get the flu. About one in 10 in the AP-Ipsos poll said they’ve had flu that was serious enough to require medical attention.

Some who got the vaccine — also about one in 10 — said they got the flu anyhow.

Flu specialists say the vaccine can make catching the flu less likely, but not prevent it totally. This year’s flu vaccine does not specifically protect against the Fujian strain, which has become dominant.

A unique year
Of those who did not get the flu shot, 45 percent said they didn’t think it was necessary. One in five said they thought the flu shots do more harm than good. Half of men who didn’t get a flu shot said they didn’t think it was necessary, while only a third of women felt that way.

“I usually don’t get sick,” said John Monroe, a diesel technician from northeastern Wyoming. “I’ve only had a flu shot twice and I don’t think it did me any good.”

Of those who did get the shots, four in 10 said they just wanted to avoid the flu, while about a fourth said they did it because of chronic health conditions and another fourth said they got their shots because of a doctor’s recommendation. About one in 10 said this was the first year they’ve gotten the flu vaccine.

“What has happened this year is singular, it’s unique,” said Schaffner, a flu specialist. “After every other influenza outbreak, there has been vaccine on the shelf. This year we will use every dose because of the demand.”

For Melinda Schneider, a 46-year-old bookkeeper from Pittsfield, Mass., the flu struck too quickly to allow her to get a flu shot or take other precautions. “I did want to get one this year, but I’ve been too sick to get one,” adding she’s been sick for weeks, but says she hasn’t missed work.

The AP-Ipsos poll of 1,001 adults was taken Dec. 15-17. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, slightly larger for subgroups.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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