With US facing surplus, panel urges easing flu shot limits
Many seniors, others at high risk did not get vaccine
ATLANTA -- Two months after a flu vaccine shortage spread alarm across the country, a federal advisory panel recommended yesterday the government ease restrictions on the nation's supply and make shots available to people 50 and older.
The move was prompted by worries all of a sudden that tens of thousands of doses of flu vaccine might go to waste.
Some states are reporting a surplus of flu vaccine. One reason is that many senior citizens or chronically ill people who were given top priority for flu vaccinations did not try to obtain a shot because they figured they would not be able to get one. The flu season also has been mild.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices made the recommendation during an emergency meeting. The CDC usually accepts the panel's recommendations.
Authorities from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health said yesterday they will consider the CDC recommendation, but for now flu shots in the state remain restricted to people 65 and older, children between 6 months and 23 months, and patients with chronic medical conditions.
Nicole St. Peter, spokeswoman for the state health agency, said Public Health Commissioner Christine C. Ferguson may announce changes in flu vaccine eligibility by next week. In addition to reviewing the CDC recommendation, state health authorities are canvassing clinics, physician offices, and hospitals to determine how many shots are left from the 1.3 million expected to be available this flu season in Massachusetts, St. Peter said.
The US supply of flu vaccine was cut in half earlier this year when a Liverpool, England, factory was shut down because of contamination. In response, the government recommended in October that healthy adults delay or skip a flu shot this season to save vaccine for the estimated 98 million people in the country who need it most -- senior citizens, infants, or those with chronic conditions. Those people are at highest risk of severe complications or death from the flu, which kills on average 36,000 people and hospitalizes 200,000 each year in the country.
But yesterday, the advisory panel said the CDC should focus first on helping state and local health departments reallocate supplies to any facing shortages, and then work to allow more people to get flu shots.
Under the panel's recommendation, senior citizens, infants, and the chronically ill would still be given the highest priority, but shots also would be made available to a second-tier group of people ages 50 to 64 as well as those who are in close contact with high-risk individuals, depending on vaccine availability in each state.
The emergency meeting scheduled after a CDC study released Thursday found that more than half of all senior citizens or chronically ill adults have not received a flu shot. The committee concluded that those people in the high-risk groups who have not sought a flu shot are unlikely to do so. ''Those at high risk have had that opportunity," said Dr. Greg Poland, a committee member and Mayo Clinic flu specialist.
''We are in danger of seesawing from a year when everybody's concerned there's no vaccine, to not using what we have."
More than four out of five states report having sufficient supplies of flu shots, and at least six states have reported a surplus, the CDC reported.
Globe staff writer Stephen Smith contributed to this report.