Record supply of flu vaccine awaits public

Anyone wishing to avoid a miserable bout with the flu can get a vaccination this fall, thanks to an abundant supply of vaccine, health officials said.

Manufacturers are expected to supply an all-time high of 132 million doses of flu vaccine in the United States this year. None of the makers has reported delays in production or shipping, which resulted in vaccine shortages in previous years.

The government and commercial health care providers are recommending flu shots for children and people at highest risk of having severe complications of influenza, and also are making vaccine available for anyone wanting a shot.

The Stanislaus County Health Services Agency is prepared to administer 2,000 free flu shots at an emergency preparedness drill Oct. 16 at Centenary United Methodist Church, at McHenry and Toyon avenues in Modesto.

The agency is teaming with the county Office of Emergency Services to practice mass vaccinations during the exercise, which will involve the American Red Cross, law enforcement and other emergency responders.

It's a chance for county residents to help the community prepare for an emergency and get a free flu shot. Participants are asked to wear short sleeves or be ready to roll up their sleeves.

The vaccine given at the event won't be for bird flu, but for common strains of influenza. The shots will be available to children 6 months to 17 years and adults of all ages. Shots with no preservative containing traces of mercury will be available for children 6 months to 3 years.

A vaccine nasal mist containing a live virus is an option for healthy individuals ages 2 to 49. In previous years, the nasal mist wasn't for children younger than 5, but the newer formulation is considered OK for the younger age group.

The Health Services Agency has received 6,000 of the 10,000 flu vaccine doses ordered for its public flu clinics, said Nancy Bancroft, immunization coordinator for the county.

The agency expects to receive the rest of the vaccine in coming weeks.

"We would like to immunize as many people as possible against the flu," Bancroft said. "We got our supply fairly early."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 200,000 people are hospitalized and 36,000 die from complications of flu in the United States each year. A vaccination is considered the most effective way to avoid the illness.

The vaccine is recommended for vulnerable groups, including children age 6 months to 5 years, pregnant women, adults age 50 and older, those with chronic health conditions, and health care workers.

In addition, a study in today's New England Journal of Medicine revealed that flu shots are not only effective for the elderly, but that the older a person is, the greater the benefits. With each decade of life, it appears that the vaccine reduces the risk of hospitalization and death, said Dr. R. Doug Hardy, an infectious disease specialist at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

Randy Bergen, the clinical lead for Kaiser Permanente's Northern California flu task force, keeps track of flu outbreaks in the state and other parts of the world. Sometimes, the incidence of flu in the Southern Hemisphere gives a clue about what will happen in the Northern Hemisphere later in the year, he said.

"Australia had quite a severe influenza season," Bergen said. "The rest of the Southern Hemisphere didn't report unusual activity. In the last two years, our flu season has not been severe, so if the law of averages works out, I am a little bit nervous this might be a more severe year. But that is not based on any data."

In Northern California, February is the most common month for influenza to peak. December is second and March is the third most common month for the maximum number of cases, although it has occurred as early as November, Bergen said.

Kaiser Permanente provides flu shots to members from Oct. 13 to Nov. 10 at medical of-fices in Modesto, Stockton, Manteca and Tracy.

While Stanislaus County Health Services Agency has flu shot clinics for low-income residents, the schedule has not been released. Bancroft said people with health insurance should ask their physician for a vaccination, although the emergency preparedness drill is open to anyone who wants a shot.

The county is emphasizing flu shots for young children. While their immune systems are usu-ally strong, children can readily spread the flu virus to grandparents and other vulnerable people, Bancroft said.

To keep from spreading the flu, health officials said, people should wash their hands often, cover their mouths when they cough and stay home from work when they are sick.

McClatchy Newspapers contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com.