updated 4/13/2004 4:35:46 PM ET 2004-04-13T20:35:46

Caught off-guard last year by a flu vaccine shortage, the government will begin stockpiling flu shots for the first time ever and target them toward children.

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“We were caught with our pants down,” Dr. Lance Rodewald, head of immunization services with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Tuesday. “The pressure on CDC to find vaccine was enormous.”

The government plans to spend $80 million over the next two years to pay for the 4 million-dose stockpile, which will be set aside for children up to 18 years old, said the CDC’s Dr. Stephen Cochi.

Congress could allow adults to tap into the supply during a crisis, Rodewald said.

This past winter’s flu season got off to an alarming start with emergency rooms filling up and parents lining up at doctors’ offices seeking the shots for their children. Flu was blamed for dozens of children’s deaths by Christmas.

Most state health departments and doctors told the CDC they had run out of flu shots, or had few doses left. The sudden demand in late November also surprised the nation’s vaccine manufacturers, which already had ended production of last season’s vaccine.

At the same time, the CDC and health officials were urging people to get their shots when there were none available.

“Had we known that, we would have changed our message a little bit in terms of how we promoted vaccinations,” Rodewald said.

Manufacturers encouraged to make more
CDC officials hope the announcement of its planned vaccine stockpile will prompt manufacturers to make more flu shots, Cochi said.

But there are potential problems. The flu vaccine only is good for the year that it is made and flu shot makers have to find a way to be able to provide the reserve without affecting the regular supply. About 83.1 million doses of flu shots were distributed in the United States this flu season, the CDC said.

“It’s going to be a challenge to use this stockpile in an optimal way,” Cochi said.

Despite its early start, this past flu season turned out to be fairly typical, the government said last week. This season 143 children died of the flu, which is about average, Cochi said.

Most of the children had no health problems before getting the flu, and most had not received a flu shot.

The season started earlier and peaked earlier than usual — between late November and December — then declined rapidly through February, the CDC’s preliminary review indicates.

The CDC also announced Tuesday that tens of thousands more people than previously believed are hospitalized because of influenza each year. New preliminary data suggests about 200,000 Americans are hospitalized with the flu, up from previous yearly estimates of 114,000, said Dr. Nancy Cox, chief of the CDC’s influenza branch.

Last year, the CDC revised its flu death estimates — about 36,000 people die from the flu each year, up from about 10,000.

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