State Health Commissioner Offers Advice in Response to National Flu Vaccine Shortage

Albany, NY, October 6, 2004 — In the wake of yesterday's announcement that nearly half of the nation's expected doses of influenza vaccine will not be available this flu season, State Health Commissioner Antonia C. Novello, M.D., M.P.H., Dr. P.H. is urging New Yorkers to take simple precautions to prevent the spread of the flu virus and to help health practitioners and officials better ensure that the currently available doses get to New Yorkers who need them most.

Based on the shortage, which occurred when the British government prohibited the Liverpool, England-based vaccine manufacturer, Chiron Corporation, from releasing nearly 50 million doses of flu vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has made interim recommendations for influenza vaccination during the 2004-05 season.

"It's important to realize that for most healthy people, coming down with influenza is uncomfortable, but not a serious health threat," Dr. Novello said. "Unfortunately for others—probably even some of our family members or friends—the flu places them at a much higher risk of severe complications and even death. Because of the currently limited vaccine supply, it is crucial that we work together to deliver the flu vaccine to those who in the absence of needed vaccination, will be at greater risk of severe complications.

"Our immediate focus will be to make certain that the vaccine supply New York State receives reaches those residents who are most at risk for complications associated with the flu," Dr. Novello said. 

Priority groups for influenza vaccination have been identified and include:

  • All children aged 6-23 months;
  • Adults aged 65 years and older;
  • Persons aged 2-64 years with underlying chronic medical conditions;
  • All women who will be pregnant during the influenza season;
  • Residents of nursing homes and long term care facilities;
  • Children aged 6 months to 18 years on chronic aspirin therapy;
  • Health care workers providing direct patient care; and
  • Out-of-home caregivers and household contacts of children under six months old.

Persons who are not included in one of the above priority groups should consider forgoing or deferring vaccination.

The State Health Department is implementing several initiatives to ensure that New York State is comprehensively monitoring all aspects of influenza activity and vaccine supplies in the state.

The Department is now monitoring flu activity and vaccine supplies throughout New York State by using the State's innovative Health Emergency Response Data System (HERDS) to collect the vaccine information from hospitals.

New York's HERDS combines Geographic Information Systems and a comprehensive, interactive database to provide health officials with online, real time data describing available hospital beds, medical supplies, personnel, numbers, status and immediate care needs of ill or injured persons, along with other urgent information to facilitate a rapid and effective emergency response.

As part of the State's overall response, Dr. Novello is also sending letters to health care providers and organizations requesting, among other measures, their full compliance with emergency protocols that will allow NYS to act quickly and appropriately to address this vaccine shortage. Compliance with this request will assure that New York State residents who are most at risk for complications from influenza are identified and have access to the vaccine by:

  • Providing guidance on vaccination priorities and timing;
  • Coordinating identification of vaccine supplies and needs at the local level through local health departments and the New York State Association of County Health Officers.
  • Urging health care providers, including employee health programs, to contact their local health department if, after vaccinating persons in high-priority groups, the provider has any available/unused vaccine.

In addition to requesting the cooperation of the state's health care providers, Dr. Novello recommended that New Yorkers take an active role in preventing the flu by:

  • Checking with their health care provider to determine if the intra-nasal vaccine, or FluMist" is appropriate for their age group, of which an additional 1.1 million doses are available.
  • Practicing good respiratory hygiene and hand washing that may help reduce the risk of getting colds and flu.
  • Remaining home from work, school and public places when individuals are sick. This will greatly reduce the potential spread of the flu virus and will help control outbreaks.
  • If you get the flu, contact your health care provider to obtain proper treatment.
  • Understanding the symptoms of the flu. A fever and "achy feeling" is common with the flu, along with upper respiratory symptoms

"The State Health Department will continue to consult closely with CDC to ensure that we can respond quickly to any new developments," Dr. Novello said. "We want all New Yorkers to understand that while this situation demands our attention, there are ways each and every one of us can help to reduce the potential risk from influenza. The most important thing you can do if you are healthy, is to defer vaccination. Save the shot for someone who needs it more. Also, if you have symptoms of an upper respiratory infection, stay home from work or school until you are well again, to decrease transmission of the flu virus. And by all means, regularly wash your hands."

If you would like additional information about flu, please visit the State Health Department's web site at www.health.ny.gov.