updated 10/14/2004 4:35:19 PM ET 2004-10-14T20:35:19

The flu vaccine shortage is forcing many companies to cancel inoculation programs this year and switch their efforts toward educating workers about preventing influenza instead.

But while employers expect more sick days this flu season, most don't believe it will have a debilitating effect. That's because so few people get vaccinated even when there isn't a shortage, and only a small part of the population actually gets the flu every year.

"There will be absenteeism and there may be strains at companies," said Shelly Wolff, national practice leader for health and productivity at the consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide.

But Wolff points out that only between 7 percent and 20 percent suffer from the flu in any given season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Plus, she said no one knows how severe the season will be or where it will be most prominent.

Another mitigating factor is that few people actually participate in inoculation programs. Consulting firm Towers Perrin found that when its clients offer flu shots, only 5 percent to 15 percent of employees take advantage of them. The CDC said only 25.1 percent of people over the age of 5 months got a flu shot last year.

Towers Perrin principal Ronald Mason said the shortage will have the largest effect on manufacturing companies, because they will either have to hire replacement workers or accept lower productivity if the flu season is severe. He estimates each flu case costs a manufacturer between $300 and $600.

The Chrysler Group is going ahead with a vaccine program that started earlier this month for its 76,000 employees. David Elshoff, a spokesman for the division of DaimlerChrysler AG, said the automaker got less of the vaccine than it requested but believed going through with the program was appropriate.

"DaimlerChrysler makes 1 percent of America's GDP," Elshoff said. "We think we have to keep America working."

Flu vaccine programs are popular with employers: The shots save a company an average of $13.66 per person vaccinated, a 2001 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found. Vaccination prevents 12.3 work day absences and 2.5 doctor visits per 100 people who get the shots.

But the nation's flu vaccine supply was cut in half last week after British regulators unexpectedly suspended the license of Chiron Corp., citing manufacturing problems at a Liverpool plant. Chiron was supposed to supply the United States with 46 million to 48 million does of flu vaccine.

Aventis Pasteur had already begun shipping its 54 million doses. Of the approximately 22 million doses it had left, 14 million are earmarked for clients with high priority patients and the CDC is buying 8 million.

Most companies can do little about the shortage beyond educating employees in flu prevention and helping those at risk get the vaccine, Wolff said.

Walter Industries Inc. had offered its 5,200 employees free flu shots for the last seven years, but was forced to cancel its program this year because it couldn't get supplies. Instead, it will publish an article in its newsletter about how to avoid getting the flu, using information from the CDC.

Recommendations include washing hands frequently and staying home when sick _ but sending the latter message to employees is tricky, said John McNeilly, communications director at the Tampa, Fla.-based home builder.

"It is a fine line," he said. "We don't want them to stay home if they just have a sniffle."

Sally Weintraub, human resources manager at the College of American Pathologists, said she isn't that worried about increased absenteeism or employees taking advantage of the situation. The challenge the Northfield, Ill.-based medical association faced was whether to offer inoculations to its 450 employees and their families, since it had received its vaccine supply.

The College chose to offer the vaccines, but asked that only employees and their family members at risk of severe complications from the flu get a shot. According to the CDC, groups at high risk include children between 6 months and 23 months, adults over age 65, pregnant women, and people with chronic medical conditions.

The medical association opted to donate to leftover vaccines to local public health officials.

"It wasn't such a difficult decision," Weintraub said. "It was the right thing to do."

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

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