updated 10/5/2004 6:45:53 PM ET 2004-10-05T22:45:53

Federal officials who usually urge almost everyone to roll up their sleeves for a flu shot instead are asking healthy people to refrain this year and go along with a voluntary rationing of available vaccine because of an unprecedented shortage.

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Officials learned Tuesday that only about 54 million doses will be available for this flu season instead of the record 100 million doses the government had hoped to have on hand.

“It may be — we don’t think so — that come January, we may have more vaccine on hand,” said Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University, one of the government’s vaccine advisers.

But for now, the focus is on making best use of what vaccine there is.

Here are answers to some basic questions:

Why is there a shortage?
Only two companies — Chiron Corp. and Aventis Pasteur — were making flu shots for the United States this year. In the past, as many as four to six companies did. Chiron’s vaccine was being made in a factory in England, and British officials on Tuesday revoked the company’s license over concerns about manufacturing standards at the plant, preventing Chiron from selling any of its vaccine.

Can’t Aventis or some other company just make more?
No. Vaccine production takes several months at best, starting with growing the vaccine strain of the virus in chicken eggs and ending with vials of vaccine that must pass an array of federal safety tests before it can be released for use. Aventis reports that it’s already operating at full capacity and can’t make more until after November, once existing orders have been filled.

What about diluting the vaccine to get more shots from each dose?
Officials are discussing that, but it isn’t known if that would be a safe or effective option yet.

Who should get a shot this year?
Children 6-23 months old, people 65 and older, people with underlying or chronic medical problems, pregnant women, nursing home residents, health care workers who directly care for people at high risk of flu complications, child care workers who take care of children under age 2, and children who regularly take aspirin.

What if I want the vaccine and I’m not in this group?
Officials are asking healthy people not to seek shots this year so enough are available for those who need them most.

How about that inhaled flu vaccine? Will it be available and is it safe?
About 1.1 million doses of MedImmune Inc.'s FluMist will be available for healthy 5- to 49-year-olds and even health-care workers. It’s made from live but weakened influenza virus, and experts say it is not necessary for anyone who gets it to be quarantined for a week to keep from spreading it to others.

Why can’t the government take control and give vaccine to those who need it most?
Experts say the government doesn’t have that authority, because vaccine has already been sold to private groups that run flu shot clinics. Trying to seize vaccine likely would spark lawsuits that could delay anyone getting vaccine in time for the flu season.

What about cities or states that bought vaccine only or mostly from Chiron?
Federal officials are working with Aventis to spread remaining shipments to parts of the country that need them most.

How bad will the shortage be?
Between 90 million and 120 million Americans are at high risk of complications from the flu or have close contact with people who are, but not that many get shots each year. Last year, more than 80 million people got shots — a record high. Typically, 50 million to 80 million do each year.

What else can I do if I can’t get vaccine?
People may want to discuss with their doctors getting a prescription for one of the antiviral drugs that can lessen the severity of flu if taken right after symptoms begin.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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