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More flu vaccine on its way

Illness now widespread in 24 states

Waiting for their flu shots, people line the hall of the Allegheny County Health Department in Pennsylvania, a state reporting widespread flu activity.
Waiting for their flu shots, people line the hall of the Allegheny County Health Department in Pennsylvania, a state reporting widespread flu activity.

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Federal health officials announced Thursday the purchase of 250,000 extra doses of the flu vaccine as the illness became officially widespread in 24 states, nearly double the number reported last week.

About 100,000 doses of adult vaccine should arrive this week at state health departments, and another 150,000 doses will be sent in January, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told reporters in a telephone call from Washington to a news conference at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Priority should be given to people over the age of 65, children ages six months to 23 months, anyone with a chronic medical condition such as diabetes, women in their second or third trimesters of pregnancy and people who come into contact with high-risk individuals, such as health-care workers, he said.

States will be allotted supplies of the vaccine based on population.

The announcement was made as the disease agency reported in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that influenza illness was widespread in 24 states as of the end of last week, that all 50 states have reported cases and that the worst is not over.

That's nearly double the 13 states that were reporting widespread illness last week.

"It's clear that the epidemic has not peaked this year," CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding told reporters in Atlanta. Although early information suggests "that possibly things may be leveling off in some of the states that were hardest hit, it's just too soon to say whether or not that is indeed the case."

Even the value of the extra vaccine is in question. This year's vaccines do not contain a strain of the Fujian virus that represents three-fourths of all cases, but they do contain a similar strain.

"We're hopeful that the vaccine will provide protection," Gerberding said.

Despite this year's early onset of the outbreak, the disease has not reached epidemic proportions, and there is "no evidence to suggest that this year's influenza outbreak is worse than in the past, or that the strain is more virulent," she said. Still, the early start of the outbreak -- in October -- and the widespread activity "has given us a great deal of concern."

Sometimes an early start "has been a marker of a more severe or widespread outbreak," she said.

Those who do not get the vaccine can still take steps to limit the spread of the illness, which typically kills 36,000 Americans in any given year, she said.

Those steps include staying home when sick so as not to spread the disease; going to a doctor only when necessary so as not to overwhelm health-care facilities; considering the use of antiviral drugs that can reduce the duration of the disease; and practicing good "respiratory etiquette" by covering one's mouth and nose when coughing and washing hands after they have come into contact with respiratory secretions, Gerberding said.

The extra doses of vaccine supplies represent about one-tenth of 1 percent of the 83 million doses distributed this year. That means another 185 million U.S. residents are unvaccinated. Still, Gerberding said, she hoped to increase the impact of the 100,000 doses "by focusing it onto the highest-risk populations."

Spokesman Curtis Allen said the CDC is urging doctors to give their remaining supplies only to those groups, but acknowledged that it is up to the physicians to decide what to do.

"It's kind of a tricky question," he said when asked what a doctor should do when a patient who is not a member of a high-risk group asks for the shot. "A physician would be in a very difficult place to turn them away."

There have been no reports of hoarding, or of a black market, although the agency has received anecdotal reports of some doctors boosting the price they charge for the vaccine, he said.

Aventis Pasteur spokesman Len Lavenda said the Swiftwater, Pennsylvania-based company was charging the CDC its standard rate for its reserve inventory. "We think it's the right thing to do," he said.

"I think the message here is that people who want a flu shot need to be vigilant about getting one every year," instead of waiting to see whether the season will be a bad one, he said. "You don't put a spare tire in your car only when you're worried about getting a flat."

In previous years, manufacturers have overstocked, and last year wound up throwing away 12 million leftover doses -- at $10 apiece, Gerberding said.

Government officials are considering promising to buy back some oversupply to encourage makers to produce more vaccine, she said.

Another vulnerability is the limited number of vaccine makers -- just two. Supplies have been crippled in previous years when one manufacturer ran into production problems.

The second company, Chiron Corp., based in Emeryville, California, has 400,000 extra doses available, a company spokeswoman said.

But Gerberding said their vaccine, though licensed in the United Kingdom, is not cleared for use in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration is looking into its safety and availability, she said.

Generally, that process takes a couple of weeks, she said.

An inhalable form of the vaccine, called FluMist and made by MedImmune in Gaithersburg, Maryland, sells for several times the cost of the injectable vaccines.

Its use is limited to healthy people ages 5 to 49, but supplies of it too are running short, with just 4 million doses reportedly available last week.

In light of the shortages, Gerberding modified prior advice that the disease agency had given -- that all people over age 50 should get the vaccine. Instead, she boosted the age to 65.

The CDC also said it is investigating reports of severe complications among some infected children, and examined 88 cases in Texas of pregnant women with the illness.

Schools across the nation reported high absentee rates; some have suspended classes because so many students were out with the flu.

For example, Trousdale County schools near Nashville, Tennessee, closed. The district of 1,300 students had so many children and some staff out with the flu that it canceled classes Tuesday and planned to remain closed until Monday, school official David Freeman said.

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