By Elizabeth Magill
Influenza has hit the U.S. hard this winter, with 47 states reporting widespread flu activity in the week ending January 5. Federal health officials say influenza cases began to increase rapidly in December, making this the earliest start to the flu season in a decade.
While there are early signs the flu may be waning in some areas, health officials are warning of shortages of the flu vaccine and the Tamiflu treatment for children.
“People who haven’t been vaccinated and want to get the vaccine may have to look in several places for it,” said Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
While it’s not too late to get the influenza vaccine — and the CDC recommends most people should — shortages of the vaccine are raising concern that people at high risk of contracting the flu aren’t going to have the protection they need.
Sanofi (NYSE: SNY) and GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK) are among the pharmaceutical companies indicating shortages of the vaccine, while Roche (OTC: RHHBY) is reporting delayed shipments of the liquid dosage of Tamiflu, which is used to treat children with the flu.
Sanofi, the largest flu vaccine provider, said it has sold out four of the six different dosages of its seasonal flu vaccine Fluzone, due to unexpected demand.
“At this point we are not able to make any more vaccine because we are gearing up for next year’s vaccine,” said Michael Szumera, a spokesman for Sanofi. Drug makers must reformulate the flu vaccine every year because of mutations in the flu strain.
Meanwhile, early indications are that this year’s flu shot is 62 percent effective against the influenza that’s spreading across the country, according to a report from the U.S. Flu Vaccine Effectiveness Network.
“The take home message is that the flu vaccine is moderately effective this year, and people who are vaccinated have about a 60 percent lower risk of getting the flu compared to someone who is not vaccinated. It’s a safe vaccine that can help prevent the flu and its complications in both children and adults,” said Dr. Edward Belongia, an epidemiologist, director of the Epidemiology Research Center at the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation in Marshfield, Wis.
Current estimates are that the flu shot is 55% effective for influenza A and 70% for influenza B. The overall effectiveness rate of 62% is comparable to that of previous years.
The H3N2 influenza A virus is the predominant strain currently circulating through the country. Seasons dominated by the H3N2 strain tend to be more severe, with a greater number of hospitalizations and deaths.
“We’re continuing to see influenza activity remaining elevated in most of the U.S. It may be decreasing in some areas but that’s hard to predict,” said CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden.
“We are seeing a decrease in the most recent week in some areas while other parts of the country, particularly in the west, appear to continue to be on the upswing since they experienced the flu this season more recently in the season. This really is not surprising. Influenza activity ebbs and flows during flu season and tends to spread across the country.”
Health officials say first line of defense against the flu is to get vaccinated. If you are not vaccinated, doctors recommend washing your hands frequently, cover your mouth when you cough, avoid people who are sick, avoid big crowds, and stay home when sick to help prevent spreading the flu.
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