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FRIDAY, DECEMBER 29, 2006
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Officials push flu shots, but few takers

TUSCALOOSA (AP) — There is usually a shortage of influenza vaccine, but this year Alabama health officials are facing a surplus as fewer people are signing up to get vaccinated.

The state is making one final push to remind the public to receive flu shots to try to use up the excess. If that's unsuccessful, the extra doses may be recalled from local health departments and sent to Montgomery to be redistributed to private providers.

Alabama — and the Southeast — has already seen widespread flu activity, but 25,000 doses of the 139,000 the state purchased are still unused.

Last year, the health department ordered 121,000 doses and about 10 percent went unused.

Doctors, hospitals and pharmacists can now order additional vaccine through the department's Web site, but they may not need the state's help.

University Medical Center in Tuscaloosa has so much this season that anyone could get a shot anytime, instead of waiting for a specific window of public availability.

Plenty available

"We have more than enough, probably, to last the season," said Angela Hammond, director of nursing at University Medical Center, estimating that they've given 3,000 shots. "We'd only planned to do limited immunizations, but since we received both our shipments in full, we've just left it open the whole season."

DCH Health System has vaccinated about half of its 4,000 employees at DCH Regional and Northport medical centers. That's more than they've ever given before.

"We had enough to give everyone who wanted a shot one," said Brad Fisher, DCH spokesman.

The hospital doesn't have much of its supply left, and had to order extra during its vaccine drive. But there is enough vaccine left to serve inpatient needs, Fisher said.

A decision will be made next week on if and how many requests from private health care providers the state will honor, said Dr. Charles Woernle, assistant state health officer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 1.27 million people have received a flu shot in Alabama, Woernle said. Still, that's only slightly more than a quarter of Alabama's population of 4.5 million people.

"I'm thinking from a strategy point of view it would be very nice if we pushed that even higher," Woernle said. "Flu vaccine is recommended for almost everybody."

Woernle would like more people vaccinated because, he said, it results in fewer people getting sick and is good preparation for a pandemic flu.

"It primes the pump for manufacturing, delivery and utilization," Woernle said. "So, if we ever get into a pandemic situation, the system is already revved up to the level that we would like to have it for a pandemic response."

Woernle also wants to steer away from the traditional mind-set that October is the only month to be vaccinated.

This year, manufacturing issues with one of the three vaccine strains delayed delivery of the state's supply until late November. When demand peaked in October, the health department couldn't meet the need.

Getting vaccinations as late as January can still provide protection, but it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to be fully effective. Alabama's flu season typically peaks in January or February.

"In part because we are revving up the nation's production, there is a growing sentiment that even under ideal production, not all the vaccine will be available for everyone Oct. 1," Woernle said. "So, there is a goal to try and change the expectation that is commonly held that all vaccine will be available in October and all 100 million-plus doses can be given in one month of the year."

Instead, he said, the flu shot campaign should be spread out over October, November and December.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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