updated 3/23/2005 10:29:40 AM ET 2005-03-23T15:29:40

Some 16 to 17 million Americans voluntarily gave up their flu shot this past winter, so that the sick, the elderly and health care workers were protected nearly as much as in years past, government officials said.

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Jeanne Santoli, an immunization expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said coverage rates for the groups most at risk from influenza nearly matched the level of the previous flu season despite an unexpected shortage of vaccine.

She said several factors helped health officials avoid a crisis. Those factors included a slight increase in production from other vaccine makers, an intense public relations campaign and the generous consideration of millions of Americans.

“We ended up with a number of positive outcomes, despite the challenges,” Santoli told health care officials attending an immunization conference here.

Health officials learned early last October that British regulators had banned Chiron Corp., a biotechnology company, from shipping some 48 million doses of vaccine to the United States. The ban stemmed from contamination concerns and left the United States with about half the dosages that had been anticipated.

Santoli said the loss of the vaccine was unpredictable, as was the severity of the flu season and that it would peak in February. Cases are declining now and officials are finding vaccine left over. Some critics have contended the U.S. should have done a better job of monitoring conditions at Chiron’s manufacturing plant.

Increasing available doses
The vaccination rate for “priority adults” — those over 65, the sick and health care workers with direct patient contact — was 43 percent for the 2004-05 flu season, Santoli said. That compares to a rate of 47.8 percent the previous season.

The vaccination rate for “non-priority adults” dropped from 19.6 percent to 8.3 percent, she said.

CDC officials also took a look ahead at what can be expected in the 2005-06 flu season. Dr. Lance Rodewald said the CDC is looking at three scenarios. The middle one considered most likely envisions 63 million doses of vaccine being available for next flu season, compared with 61 million this season.

Officials are optimistic that Chiron Corp will be able to re-enter the market, Rodewald added.

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