Vaccine Demand On The Rise As Nasty Flu Season Takes Stronghold
January 11, 2013

Vaccine Demand On The Rise As Nasty Flu Season Takes Stronghold

[Watch Video: Texas Flu Cases On The Rise]

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

As a nasty flu season is gripping the country, a surge in demand for flu shots has left some vaccine providers with short supplies. Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said there are still plenty of shots to go around, but some people may have to go out of their way to get one.

“We understand there are some spot shortages here and there,” Skinner told NBC News. “People have taken note that we´re experiencing a moderate to severe season.”

Robert Elfinger, a spokesperson for one of the largest drugstore chains, Walgreens, said because of the “increased demand for flu shots in recent weeks, select locations may currently be experiencing shortages in supply of flu vaccine.”

Walgreens is working on ensuring that it will keep a steady supply of flu shots throughout the flu season.

Flu vaccine provider Sanofi Pasteur, which supplies about half the country, told NBC News on Thursday that it has sold out of four of its six formulations of Fluzone because of the late season demand. But company officials said it still has other vaccines available for both children and adults.

As of January 4, more than 128 million of the 135 million produced doses of flu vaccine had been distributed around the country, according to the CDC. While there is no word on exactly how many have been used, about 112 million people had received flu shots by the end of November; it is likely, however, that that number has risen sharply since.

This year´s flu season started much earlier than in previous years and includes a virus that causes unusually severe illness. And according to the CDC, the flu has spread to more than 80 percent of the country. The agency has said that more than 2,200 people have been hospitalized since October due to flu symptoms, and as many as 18 children have died. The CDC is expected to publish latest figures today.

New reports are surfacing that hospitals around the country are becoming inundated with flu patients as well. In Boston, hospitals are restricting visitors to protect patients with weakened immune systems; and some are banning children under 14 years altogether from traipsing through their wards. As well, hospital personnel are carefully monitoring everyone flowing in and out of their lobbies, looking for signs of sneezing, coughing and other symptoms.

At Massachusetts General Hospital, 536 people have so far been treated for influenza this season, 97 in the last week alone. These are significant numbers, since last year only 29 people were admitted for overnight stays due to flu-related illnesses; so far this year, 167 have been admitted.

The current outbreak has led Boston´s mayor to declare a public health emergency. This year´s case load is so far 10 times that of last year, and it is expected to get worse. The announcement allowed the release of thousands of free vaccines for those who have yet to get one. The alert also warned people who may have symptoms to stay home to prevent further spreading of the virus.

In Minnesota, hospitals are also on high alert. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, hospitals are opening up extra units to house flu patients.

So far this year, 41 states are reporting widespread flu outbreaks. According to the CDC, roughly 3 in 10,000 adults over 65 have been hospitalized due to influenza, compared to 1 in 100,000 at the same time last year.

As the flu season continues its unrelenting grasp, public health officials are bracing for what could be the most severe outbreak in recent years.

“Certainly last year was mild, and the year before that was relatively mild,” Dr. Michael Jhung, medical officer in the influenza division at the CDC, told Alice Park of Time Magazine.

“But the number we are at right now, 5.6% [the proportion of people seeing their doctor for flu-related symptoms] compared to last year´s peak of 2.2% tells you this year is more severe than last year for sure,” he explained.

It´s still too early to tell how much worse the flu season will become, Jhung noted.

But because the flu season usually runs through to April, and typically peaks in February, we could still be in for a run of it. And because this season has so far proved to be much worse than in recent history, it stands to become a lot worse in the coming weeks.

It´s possible that the seasonal cycle is simply peaking earlier, said Jhung, but because influenza is so unpredictable, health officials won´t know for sure until the spring.

The severity this year is likely attributable to H3N2, which has caused the most illnesses. H3N2 is associated with more virulent symptoms of fever, coughing, and respiratory distress, as well as complications such as pneumonia and bacterial infection. Viruses that can lodge deeper in the lungs are generally more complicating and cause more health problems than typical run-of-the-mill influenza.

But scientists are currently perplexed where H3N2 gets its virulence. While any influenza can cause changes in the lungs that may make people more susceptible to bacterial infections that normally do not pose a problem, H3N2 has been seemingly more virulent than most.

Fortunately, the flu vaccine distributed this year is a good match for the H3N2 strain. Vaccines typically contain protection from three different strains that are viewed as the most common for the upcoming season. Also, the mash-up maximizes the chances of protecting against whatever multiple versions of the flu may be out there circulating.

This year´s vaccine contains a strain nearly identical to the H3N2 strain, as well as an H1N1 strain and an influenza B strain that is an 80 percent identical match to a version that is currently circulating the country.

However, things could change. Influenza is notoriously cunning and is known to mutate quickly and effectively to evade extermination. “It may change in a week, it may change in a month,” said Jhung of the circulating virus.

And it´s entirely possible that some people who were immunized may still get sick, since no vaccine is 100 percent effective at protecting against infection. Those who were vaccinated earlier in the season are likely the best protected as it takes about two weeks for the antibodies to build up in one´s system.

For those who still have yet to get their flu shot, health experts say there is still time, and nobody should fore-go vaccination. But as it is becoming more and more difficult to find a site that has flu shots in stock, some people are just giving up on finding one.

One good way to find a nearby flu vaccine is through the HealthMap Vaccine Finder. The site includes some 40,000 locations across the country and users can input their address or ZIP codes and find the nearest location that is still offering vaccinations.

There´s really no shortage of the shots, just some local disruptions in supply, said Erin Fox, manager of the Drug Information Service at the University of Utah, which tracks drug shortages. “Tons of flu vaccine still available!” She added.