WASHINGTON — Two months after a flu vaccine shortage spread alarm throughout the country, U.S. health officials moved Friday to ease restrictions on the supply and make shots available to many adults ages 50 and older.
An influential federal panel said that in areas where supply was adequate, individuals ages 50 to 64 should be allowed to get flu shots, at the discretion of local health officials.
California already had lowered the threshold for flu-shot eligibility from 65 to 50.
The move by U.S. officials was prompted by scattered accounts of flu vaccine wasting on shelves, despite the national shortage.
A mild flu season, combined with the October spectacle of lengthy vaccine lines, may have discouraged many senior citizens from getting shots, experts say. The abstentions remain a concern to public health officials, who note that the flu season will peak sometime in early 2005.
"In most communities we're still targeting vaccine to the people in the highest priority groups," said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "The challenge is that in some places, health departments and private providers currently do not have enough demand from people in those priority groups.
"We don't want those doses to go to waste, so some states are expanding to make good use of those doses."
The recommendation by the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices takes effect Jan. 3. In October, the panel had recommended that the vaccine be restricted to certain high-risk groups, including adults 65 and older.
The new federal guidelines, while not mandatory, are extremely influential. They reflect changes that already were taking place outside Washington.
Although many people have found it difficult or impossible to obtain flu vaccine, surpluses have emerged in various regions, including parts of the East Coast, Midwest and West.
Earlier this week, California's public health officer, Dr. Richard Joseph Jackson, announced the state would expand the vaccine eligibility to include everyone older than 50, emergency services personnel and certain out-of-the-home caregivers.
"While our first priority continues to be ensuring the availability of flu shots for seniors and those at highest risk for complications from the flu, we have the opportunity to vaccinate more people," Jackson said in a statement. "Eligible Californians should not wait. They should seek a flu immunization as soon as possible."
On Friday, Minnesota health officials lifted restrictions, subject to availability of the vaccine.
"We have directed flu vaccine to 100% of our nursing homes and long-term care facilities, and we have made every effort to ensure that high-risk Minnesotans have had an opportunity to get flu shots this year. But we have about 60,000 doses left in the state that could go unused if we don't take this step," said Minnesota Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach.
Shortage warnings emerged on Oct. 5, when British authorities shut down a substandard flu vaccine plant in Liverpool that had been expected to provide half of this nation's supply. Since then, U.S. officials have found some alternate supplies from French drug maker Aventis Pasteur Inc., the other main U.S. provider, British company GlaxoSmithKline and other sources. The Liverpool plant, owned by Chiron Corp. of Emeryville, Calif., remains closed as company officials try to upgrade manufacturing standards.
Although the total of 62 million doses is far below the expected supply of 100 million this year, officials say that many patients may have been discouraged after the early news of chaotic lines. In addition, many high-risk individuals do not seek flu shots. Public health officials have been scrambling to steer existing supplies to providers most likely to serve the target groups.
During the week ending Dec. 11, New York was the only state with a widespread flu outbreak, according the most recent data from the CDC. Four states reported no influenza. California was among 38 states in which the illness was designated "sporadic." The remainder also reported limited flu levels.