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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Flu Shots

Air Date: Week of November 2, 2001

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Because the early symptoms of anthrax can mirror those of the flu, some officials say everyone should get a flu shot. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that's bad advice. Living on Earth's Diane Toomey reports.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Once again the flu season is upon us. But nowadays, the decision to get vaccinated has taken on new meaning when one considers bioterrorism. Living On Earth's Diane Toomey explains why.

TOOMEY: At a press conference late last month, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani rolled up his sleeve and got a flu shot, and he encouraged all New Yorkers to do the same. "It's good for you," he said, "and it's really good for the city." Giuliani isn't alone in his opinion. The Governor of South Dakota has said everyone in his state should get the shot. And the Postal Service in Boston will offer flu shots to all of its employees there. That's because the early symptoms of anthrax disease-- fever, body aches, and

headaches-- are similar to those of the flu. And as the flu season enters high gear, some fear that anthrax false alarms could overwhelm the nation's health care system. There are already reports of people with coughs and colds flooding emergency rooms. On the other hand, there is concern that people actually exposed to anthrax may delay getting treatment in the belief that all they have is a simple case of the flu.

But the Centers for Disease Control strongly recommends against widespread flu vaccination in the face of anthrax fears. First of all, the vaccines can't fight the many non-influenza diseases that also cause flu-like symptoms. Secondly, the flu shot doesn't always work. Estimates of its effectiveness run from 70 to 90 percent. And the CDC says there's simply not enough vaccine to go around.

The agency fears that a panic run on the shot would prevent those who need it most, such as the elderly and the chronically ill, from getting it. Twenty thousand people die each year from flu complications. Normally all of the vaccines would have been delivered by now, but for the second year in a row there are fewer companies making the shot, and that has meant shipment delays. At this point, those manufacturers have delivered a little more than half of the total number of doses due.

Recently, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, summoned executives from the three manufacturers to Washington. The Secretary was one of those calling on all Americans to get a flu shot, but retracted that advice when the CDC issued its recommendations. After the meeting, Thompson said he persuaded the vaccine manufacturers to ramp up production by about 10 percent, bringing the total number of doses scheduled to ship this year up to 85 million.

Thompson expects the remaining vaccines to ship by the first week of December, still in time to protect the public against the peak flu season. For Living On Earth, I'm Diane Toomey.

 

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