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Be sure you need that flu shot

By PAT JENKINS

The Mirror

People who are statistically most likely to catch influenza should be first in line for vaccinations this flu season, according to health authorities who are trying to stretch a short supply of vaccine.

Everyone who can skip getting a flu shot should –– and, officials added, try to avoid the bug by doing what mom taught them, like washing their hands.

Officials in King County responded to news this week that Chiron, one of the two major flu vaccine manufacturers for the United States, has lost its license to produce the antidote and won't supply any of it nationally. As a result, nearly half of the nation's usual stock will be cut in half. A similar drop is expected in King County, with about 42,000 fewer doses available at public health clinics.

"This is a serious problem," said Dr. Alonzo Plough, director of the Seattle-King County Public Health Department. "Our goal now is to work with the public and healthcare providers to ensure that those at highest risk for serious complications from the flu are the ones who will receive the vaccine."

The elderly, the pregnant and the very young are among people high on the priority list. People with lower risks should forgo flu shots for the benefit of those who need them most, Plough said.

Last year, an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 county residents were vaccinated against flu.

Health Department officials plan to meet next week with large public and private providers of flu shots to take a full inventory of how much vaccine is available around the county.

Group Health, which has clinics in Federal Way and other parts of the county that issue flu vaccinations, gets 90 percent of its supply from sources other than Chiron. Nevertheless, "we expect we'll be affected" as the shortage becomes more noticeable, said spokeswoman Heather Craig.

At Group Health's Federal Way location, where GH members can get vaccinations, 93 workers fit the category that health authorities consider high-priority for being vaccinated. Group Health follows that recommendation, "but we don't force our people" to get shots, Craig said.

Public clinics and free vaccine programs administered through the Health Department are taking a hard hit in this year's vaccine shortage. As a result of the flow from Chiron drying up, none of the 21,000 doses normally set aside for the clinics to give to adults will be available, said James Apa, a department spokesman. In addition, the 60,000-dose inventory originally earmarked for children will shrink to about 39,000, he said.

The clinics will start administering what they can later this month, Apa said.

Aventis, the other major manufacturer in the U.S., is the only remaining source of vaccine for the county.

It's unclear if clinics and hospital emergency rooms will see more people suffering from the flu this year. Usually, cases requiring medical attention involve patients prone to serious complications –– and those are the people who hopefully will receive one of the suddenly more-valuable vaccinations, officials said.

For those outside the flu risk group, the keys to staying healthy and/or preventing the spread of flu germs are "the things your mother taught you," said Apa. That includes washing hands, covering mouths when coughing and staying home when sick.

Additional information from the county and state health departments is available on-line at www.metrokc.gov/health/immunization/fluseason.htm and www.doh.wa.gov, respectively.

Editor Pat Jenkins: 925-5565, editor@fedwaymirror.com

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