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Mississippians brace for vaccine shortage

By Linda Breazeale

MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The national flu vaccine shortage will eliminate the single best option for preventing the flu for some Mississippians, but officials are encouraging the state's residents to consider all their health options.

Liz Sharlot, director of communications with the Mississippi State Department of Health, said people who are most at risk for the flu and its serious complications should make every effort to get vaccinated. Priority groups include children between 6 and 23 months, adults age 65 and older, anyone with chronic medical conditions, women who will be pregnant during flu season, children on chronic aspirin therapy, health-care workers, out-of-home caregivers and household contacts of children younger than 6 months of age.

A limited amount of adult flu vaccine will be distributed to Mississippi by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for those in high-risk groups. The number of doses and their delivery schedule is still being determined.

"Mississippi's population is 2.8 million, and the State Department of Health vaccinated 152,000 people last year. This year before the shortage was announced, the department ordered 182,000 doses, which included 70,000 pediatric doses," Sharlot said.

By the first week of October, Mississippi had received 24,000 pediatric doses that were immediately distributed to its 109 health departments and clinics. The state health department is awaiting word from the CDC on the adult vaccine. Some private providers such as physicians, pharmacies, grocery stores and health-care facilities may have the adult flu vaccine.

Sharlot said senior citizens and those in the high-risk category should speak with their physician or primary care provider about a pneumonia vaccine. Pneumonia is the most serious complication of influenza. The CDC reports a national average of 114,000 people hospitalized annually for flu-related complications and about 20,000 deaths each year from flu complications.

"In 2002, Mississippi had one flu death and five deaths that were possibly flu cases. We had 792 deaths that were pneumonia related," she said. "Fortunately, there are plenty of pneumonia vaccines available."

The flu vaccine is effective for only a few months, so vaccinations from past years will not provide protection from illness this flu season. The pneumonia vaccine is effective for five years and is not needed on an annual basis.

Jane Clary, a health specialist and associate professor with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said the most important method for preventing the flu and colds is frequent hand washing.

"Use tissues as much as possible when coughing or sneezing. Every time we shake hands with someone or touch doorknobs, handrails or other objects, we pick up germs," Clary said. "Once those germs are on your hands, they can enter your body when your fingers touch your eyes, nose or mouth."

In addition to reducing the spread of colds and flu, hand washing can reduce other serious illnesses like hepatitis A, meningitis and infectious diarrhea. When soap and water are not available, alcohol-based handwipes or gel sanitizers may be used. Specific times that are most important for hand washing include before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the bathroom; after handling animals or animal waste; when hands are dirty; and especially when around sick people.

"Unfortunately, it's not always easy to know when someone is carrying the flu virus, and they could be very contagious even though they do not appear sick," she said. "Adults typically are infectious from the day before symptoms begin to about five days after the illness begins. Children can be infectious for 10 or more days, and young children can pass the virus for up to six days before their illness begins."

The health specialist said eating a well-balanced diet and getting plenty of rest and exercise are good ways to enhance the body's ability to fight off germs. Rest and drinking lots of water are important for recovering from a cold or flu. People who become sick may want to consult their doctor for medicines that may reduce the symptoms. Treatment as soon as symptoms appear is important.

Influenza is an acute respiratory infection, and its symptoms usually include fever, aches, chills, weakness, loss of appetite, and aching of the head, back, arms and legs. In addition, a sore throat and dry cough, nausea and burning eyes may accompany the virus.

There are several antiviral medications on the market that may shorten the duration of the illness if patients begin taking them within 48 hours of their first symptoms. These medications do not actually cure the disease. Consult a physician as soon as flu symptoms are felt.

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Released: Oct. 14, 2004
Contact: Dr. Jane Clary, (662) 325-5014

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