Video: Who should get flu shots now?

By Robert Bazell Chief science and health correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/18/2005 7:37:18 PM ET 2005-01-19T00:37:18

Last October saw long lines of people desperate for a flu shot. But Tuesday at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville, Tenn., and clinics across the country, there was plenty of extra vaccine stockpiled in refrigerators. Now health officials fear it will have to be thrown out when the flu season ends in April.

"Flu vaccine in the refrigerator does not prevent flu," says Vanderbilt's Dr. William Schaffner.

So what happened to cause the current situation?

  • First there was the scare: Contamination at a British factory suddenly eliminated almost half of the U.S. supply of flu vaccine.
  • Next came the government response. Federal health officials tried to find extra doses and advised the public that only people age 65 and over and those at high risk for flu complications would be allowed to get a shot.
  • Soon after this announcement came the public's reaction. Many people scrambled to get the vaccine, often waiting in long lines, while others, including many at high risk, chose to stand aside.
  • Despite all the concern, the flu season has so far turned out to be mild. Tests routinely taken across the country show there has been little flu activity in most areas, although no one can predict what the coming months will bring. The mild season has resulted in even more people deciding to forgo a flu shot.

"It is very difficult to have this extra vaccine," says Dr. Jeanne Santoli with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "We know there are people who still need this vaccine, but how to reach those people is a big challenge

Weekly influenza estimatesTo use it up, the government is now advising everyone 50 and older to get a shot.

But Bellevue Hospital in New York is one of many places now ignoring the restrictions.

"Basically we'll vaccinate anyone who feels they want a vaccination," says Dr. Robert Holzman.

Most state and local health departments have vaccine, and Aventis Pasteur — the sole functional manufacturer — still has 3 million doses that have not been purchased.

If the flu begins to spread to many parts of the country, enoughpeople could still clamor for a shot to use up the excess. But whatever happens this year, experts say the government must prepare for next year and beyond to assure a stable supply of flu vaccine.

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