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Published: Monday, 12/27/2004

Indifference on flu shots generates new worries


Flu shots have gone from becoming a must-have item to being as sought after as a Christmas tree on the day after Christmas - and that makes public health officials nervous.

"People are saying, 'I've made it till Christmas. Maybe I'll just gut it out,' and I'm worried about that," said Dr. David Grossman, health commissioner for the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department.

Ironically, the problem is due in large part to a record shortage of flu vaccine.

Two months ago, federal officials announced half the country's flu vaccine supply was gone because of problems at one of the country's two main suppliers. As a result, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the remaining supply be reserved only for those at high risk.

Senior citizens and others stood for hours in lines trying to track down a flu shot, with many failing. Public health experts fear many high-risk individuals simply gave up.

The result? Many areas of the country now find themselves with an excess supply of vaccine, especially because some additional vaccine has been redirected to areas that previously had shortages. A flu season that's been mild so far has made people less concerned about getting a flu shot.

The CDC said that as of Jan. 3 it will broaden recommendations on who should get a shot in areas with an ample supply and urge anyone 50 or older or those in contact with a high-risk group to get vaccinated.

Many states, including Michigan, have loosened their guidelines on who should get a flu shot. Ohio isn't yet doing so but will re-evaluate the situation early next month, according to Ohio Department of Health spokesman Kristopher Weiss.

The CDC stresses that it's not too late to get a flu shot because the flu often doesn't hit hard until January. Immunity takes about two weeks to build up after a shot, so getting one in the next couple of weeks should guarantee some protection.

Despite the CDC's message that vaccine is still available, flu shots remain in short supply for many areas of northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. Few, if any, places are still hosting public flu shot clinics and many physician offices - the primary source of vaccine for most people - have little or no vaccine.

Dr. Grossman said he's heard from some area physicians who have become so frustrated with unsuccessful attempts to track down vaccine for their patients that "they're saying, 'Forget it. We don't want to deal with this anymore.' "

"It's still kind of spotty," said Dr. Jeffery Swartz, a Millbury family physician and president of a local physician group. "I wouldn't say it's readily available, though it is getting better. I think the message is to call your physician's office and check."

Dr. Grossman agreed, saying his department has had some success in redirecting some vaccine to physician offices in need. In addition, state health officials say more vaccine is trickling out to some physician offices, health departments, and hospitals.

Mr. Weiss said Ohio is getting 350,000 more doses, most of which is being sent to physician offices and hospitals this month, so the public should check again with their physician if they were unsuccessful previously.

Dr. Grossman said his department expects to get about 2,000 more doses in the first week of January and will reopen its public flu-shot clinics then. Those in other counties of northwest Ohio or southeast Michigan should heed announcements from local health departments too, because they may get more vaccine in the next couple of weeks.

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