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Panel backs nasal flu vaccine for tots

Spray not seen as replacing shot

ATLANTA - Children as young as 2 can be given a nasal spray flu vaccine, a federal advisory panel said yesterday.

The government currently recommends only traditional shots for children younger than 5. But recent studies have shown the vaccine FluMist, made by MedImmune Inc. of Maryland, to be safe and effective in children as young as 2.

FluMist was initially approved in 2003 for healthy people ages 5 to 49. The US Food and Drug Administration last month approved its use for the 2-to-5 age group as well.

Now, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which advises government health officials, is recommending FluMist's use for children in the 2-to-5 age bracket. Committee members said yesterday that children with a history of asthma or wheezing should opt for a shot.

Health officials usually accept the panel's recommendations, and they influence insurance companies' decisions on vaccination coverage.

The committee didn't recommend FluMist over flu shots, merely making it an option for young children who may dread a shot with a needle. Flu shots are still recommended for children ages 6 months to 5 years, those 50 and older, and other groups at risk for flu complications.

The committee also suggested a government program that pays for vaccines extend its FluMist coverage to the younger age group, meaning more than 5 million children will now be eligible for free FluMist. That includes children eligible for Medicaid, members of Native American and Alaska Native groups, and some children who lack insurance that covers the vaccination.

"This is a significant step forward in our vision to have a significant impact on influenza disease in all age groups," said Frank Malinoski, MedImmune's senior vice president for medical and scientific affairs.

MedImmune is a wholly owned subsidiary of AstraZeneca PLC, which is based in London. The company had $36 million in FluMist sales last year, and has made about 4.5 million doses for the current flu season, a company spokeswoman said.

A dose of FluMist costs about $18, roughly the cost of a flu shot. One dose is recommended annually, but young, unvaccinated children should receive two doses within a month of each other.

The committee also discussed recommending flu vaccinations for all school-age children.

Health officials believe vaccinating more children would reduce the spread of flu and protect students. But specialists are concerned about the strain on pediatricians and schools if they tried to give annual flu shots to so many children.

The discussion was tabled until the panel's meeting in February.

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