Vaccine should be easily accessible for coming flu season

Getting a flu shot this fall should be about as easy as going to the grocery store.

There's plenty of vaccine to go around and no shortage of places to get immunized against the influenza virus. Manufacturers estimate that as many as 146 million doses of flu vaccine will be available, and pharmacies in stores such as Albertsons, Bi-Mart, Costco and Safeway are offering flu shots.

"You're not going to have any trouble getting vaccine this year," said Dr. Paul Cieslak, medical director of the public health division of the Oregon Department of Human Services.

Cieslak said several factors have contributed to the increase in vaccine production. Pharmaceutical companies have cleared up the manufacturing problems they had several years ago, and drug companies are making more vaccine because public health officials have expanded their recommendations for who should get vaccinated.

Federal public health officials now recommend flu vaccine for everyone between the age of 6 months and 18 years; everyone over 50; and people who are regularly in close contact with people age 50 and older. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends flu vaccination for people of any age who have chronic medical conditions; people who work in nursing homes; people who live with or care for people at risk of complications from the flu; and health care workers.

Cieslak said about 81 percent of Americans would fall within one of those categories.

CDC has expanded its vaccination guidelines to include children because research indicates they serve as a major source of spreading the flu virus during an outbreak. People who care for elders are encouraged to get vaccinated as a way to limit older people's exposure to the virus.

Cieslak said elders are more vulnerable to the virus because the immune system weakens with age, and the chronic diseases that afflict elderly people also tend to sap the immune system.

There are two kinds of vaccines, one injected into muscle, the other inhaled. The injected vaccine contains dead virus. The inhaled vaccine contains weakened live viruses. Each vaccine includes three strains of the virus, based on researchers' best estimate of which strains will be most prevalent. Researchers have to make a decision in the spring for the fall vaccine, because it takes about six months to produce it.

Between 5 percent and 20 percent of the U.S. population comes down with the flu each year, according to the CDC. The virus kills about 36,000 Americans annually, including about 450 Oregonians, and sends some 200,000 people to hospitals.

Vaccine is now available in many retail stores as well as medical offices. Cieslak said he's not sure whether stores are offering the vaccine as a public service or because they see a business opportunity. Whatever the motivation, he said, making the vaccine available in non-medical settings helps make it easier for people to get immunized.

Jackson County will also offer flu shots at the county offices at 1005 E. Main St., Medford. Call ahead at 774-8209.

Cieslak said it's impossible to predict the severity of this winter's outbreak at this time of year. The flu season typically begins in November or December, and peaks in Oregon around sometime between late January and early March.

"We're really terrible at predicting," he said.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail

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