WASHINGTON – It's not too late to get a flu shot if you can find one, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search) said Thursday.
While some states still have shortages, others have an ample supply and should exercise "common sense" in distributing the vaccine, with priority given to high-risk individuals, including elderly, children, those with chronic health conditions and health care workers, said Dr. Julie Gerberding (search).
"Don't waste it," she urged local and state health officials during her appearance before the House Government Reform Committee.
People are talking about a nationwide surplus, she said, but "fundamentally, we don't have enough."
Gerberding and Jesse Goodman, director of the FDA's Center for Biologics, Evaluation and Research (search), tried to reassure lawmakers their agencies are working to prevent a repeat of this year's flu vaccination shortage. It occurred after British health officials shut down Chiron Corp.'s plant in Liverpool, England, that was to have provided about half of the U.S. shots.
U.S. health officials put restrictions on who was eligible for shots, but it was estimated that about 98 million high risk people did not get them.
Over the past few months, more than half of the states dropped all their restrictions. Public officials have been urging the federal government to do the same, but Gerberding said that would be premature since some areas still have vaccine shortages.
The flu season, which typically runs into April, is still in full force, with 16 states, including New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Kentucky and North Dakota among those reporting high activity. The activity is at a lower level than in past years, but with the height of flu season approaching, it could bump up considerably in the coming weeks, the CDC said.
Four children have died from the flu this year — less than last year — "but still unnecessary and tragic," Gerberding said. It is too early to get a tally on the overall number of flu deaths.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., questioned the FDA's oversight of lapses at the Chiron facility. He cited a USA Today report Thursday that said although FDA inspectors were aware of problems with the vaccine that came from the facility, the agency did not recall the vaccine and did not plan an inspection of the facility for two years.
Goodman responded that "there wasn't a safety concern at that time."
Major steps are being taken to ensure the safety of vaccines, he said. U.S. inspectors will carry out annual checks of influenza vaccine manufacturing plants in the future, including one this spring at the Chiron facility.
The World Health Organization, meanwhile, recommended Thursday that a new flu strain that emerged in California be one of the three strains targeted by next year's U.S. vaccine.
Each year, the organization attempts to predict which flu strains will be the most prevalent for the coming season. Its recommendations typically are used to create the version of the influenza vaccine manufacturers will make.
The strain that emerged in Santa Clara County was confirmed last month by the CDC. Dubbed a/California/7/2004 (H3N2), it may be responsible for 20 percent of U.S. flu cases, CDC spokesman Dave Daigle said.