Thursday, October 7, 2004

Who needs flu shot, who can skip them

By Diedtra Henderson
The Associated Press

Answers to commonly asked questions about the flu vaccine:

Question: Who most needs the flu vaccine?

Answer: Nearly 20 percent of Americans get the flu each year. But it is young children, older people and those with underlying medical conditions who are much more likely to suffer serious complications from the flu. Priority groups this year include children 6 months to 23 months; adults 65 and older, and people 2 to 64 who have chronic medical conditions.

Women who will be pregnant during the flu season, which can begin as early as October and last as late as May, should get the shot. So, too, should people in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. The vaccine is suggested, as well, for children 6 months to 18 years who are on chronic aspirin therapy; health care workers who have direct contact with patients, and healthy people who live with or care for children younger than 6 months.

Q. I'm a healthy parent of young children and worry about exposing them to the flu. Should I get a shot?

A: Parents, daycare workers and other caregivers of infants 6 months or younger should get the shot this year, subject to supplies.

Q. My pediatrician ran out, but my company is offering the vaccine. Should I go ahead and get a shot?

A. Healthy individuals who do not have direct contact with high-risk people should forgo a shot.

Q. I had the flu last year. Am I more vulnerable this year if I do not get a shot?

A. Healthy people sickened by the Fujian strain last year should have partial protection if that, again, is the dominant flu strain this season, said Dr. William Schaffner, of Vanderbilt University.

Other flu strains, however, circulate. "It's not like getting measles once and being protected for life," he said. Older people, chemotherapy patients and people whose illness weakens their immune system may not have such carry-over protection, said Schaffner, one of the government's vaccine advisers.

Q. Because of the shortage, should I expect price gouging?

A. Vaccinations paid by insurance-reimbursed systems provide some safeguards, but price gouging is already occurring.

"Those are the scoundrels out there," Schaffner said. "We were afraid of that. And I've already heard reports. Can you imagine how quick that is?"

Q. What other alternatives to the vaccine are available?

A. Doctors can prescribe antiviral drugs. In 70 percent to 90 percent of cases , the prescription drugs amantadine, oseltamivir and rimantadine can prevent illness when taken by healthy adults.

Also, using those same drugs - and the antiviral zanamavir - within two days of becoming sick -- can reduce the flu symptoms and contagiousness. The drugs need to be taken for five days and work only against influenza viruses.

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