How Much Flu Vaccine? Who Knows?

Even as federal health authorities lifted recommended restrictions on who should be in line for flu shots Monday, their estimates wavered for how much vaccine will be available this fall.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now estimates that up to 89 million doses of flu vaccine should be available for this season, but the wild card in that projection is how many doses the British manufacturer Chiron Corp. will be able to produce and ship for this season.

The company recently revised its goal downward to “up to 18 million” doses to be approved for shipment to the United States. So far, 2 million doses have been cleared.

CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding told a news conference that she did not think vaccine supply would be as serious an issue as last winter, when Chiron was forced to shut down its plant due to contamination concerns and cut vaccine stocks in this country by nearly half.

Last year, the flu season was relatively mild and late in arriving. Health officials eventually managed to distribute about 61 million doses, with several million that were never used.

Gerberding said early surveillance suggests that the flu season is again off to a slow start, with low levels of flu-like illness reported in eight states thus far.

She said it appeared that the government’s call to reserve early flu shots for high-risk patients _ mainly the very young, the very old and those with chronic illness _ had “gone well” although there has been no formal assessment of vaccination rates.

She acknowledged that there have been some distribution problems with the vaccine thus far in the season, with some clinics and physicians not getting any serum, while other providers seem to have more than enough.

“We expect those supplies to improve over the next several weeks, and many people don’t seek the shot until November, so we think this will generally work out,” she said.

With worldwide media and government attention focused more on the potential threat for a pandemic arising from the spread of an avian flu out of Asia, health officials are concerned that people will either ignore the threat of the ordinary seasonal flu or mistakenly think that flu shots protect them from such flu.

“The flu shot does not protect people from avian influenza,” Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said, but noted, “We don’t have a human flu pandemic. Infections have almost entirely been humans in close contact with infected birds, and there have been no human nor avian cases in the U.S.”

Although several organizations are working on experimental human vaccines against avian flu, there is no commercially available vaccine. Two anti-viral drugs, Tamiflu and Relenza, are thought to offer some protection from the avian flu.

Leavitt said federal efforts to increase stockpiles of those drugs are continuing, but officials are concerned that people not jump the gun on buying or using the drugs, and are particularly concerned that counterfeit products may be offered over the Internet or other overseas sources.

Both drugs are also useful in treating seasonal flu and are particularly important to patients who have egg allergies or for some other reason can’t get a flu shot.

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(Contact Lee Bowman at BowmanL(at)