October 21, 2004
Community Braces for Flu Shot Scarcity
Michael Gabai is on a quest.
The owner and administrator of Ayres Residential Care Home has spent the last two weeks calling physicians, senior centers, grocery stores and pharmacies in search of flu shots for about half of the 18 residents in his facilities who have been unable to get one. Gabai was finally able to secure a reservation for his oldest resident, a 96-year-old, to get vaccinated at a grocery store about 10 miles away.
"We're scrambling to get it done, Gabai said. "We know how easily [flu] can turn into pneumonia for our elderly clients."
With the flu vaccine shortage becoming a national -- and political -- crisis, people working with seniors, like Gabai, are the most troubled.
"Flu is always a concern," said Molly Forrest, director of the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA). Vaccinations are normally given to all of JHA's residents and frontline caregivers willing to be inoculated, she said. However, JHA has not yet received its supply of vaccines from the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, which has promised to deliver them late this month or early in November. Flu season generally spans from November to March, and affects between 10 percent to 20 percent of Americans.
During the 2003-2004 flu season, there were 1,600 deaths from influenza and pneumonia in Los Angeles County, according to the Center for Disease Control. Also, over the last five years, nearly 90 percent of all deaths from flu andpneumonia were among those 65 or older.
Forrest believes they will get adequate amounts of vaccine to cover the residents, but thinks they might need to seek additional doses for frontline staff.
During her nine-year tenure, Forrest said that JHA had not experienced any serious flu outbreaks. When cases have arisen, they have isolated individual buildings or patients in order to contain the spread of the disease.
Jewish Family Service's (JFS) Valley Storefront and West Hollywood Senior Center had to cancel scheduled flu shot clinics when the Red Cross failed to deliver vaccines as promised, said Lisa Brooks, one of the agency's directors.
"We're waiting to see if more supplies become available," she said. Directors of JFS's senior centers are in close contact with sources of the vaccine to find out when that might be.
Additional flu shots might soon be forthcoming from drug manufacturer Aventis Pasteur. The majority of its 22.4 million doses, which were promised but not yet shipped to customers, will be routed to entities designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as priorities. In addition to seniors, those considered most at-risk of developing potentially life-threatening complications from the flu include children under 2 years old (the vaccine is not recommended for babies younger than 6 months old), individuals with chronic medical conditions and pregnant women. According to United Press International, CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said the agency is mapping areas where the vaccine has been sent and those where it is needed and also tracking flu cases by county to quickly identify flu hot spots.
The flu shot shortage does not seem to trouble early childhood educators.
"I don't think at this time anyone is particularly panicking," said Betty Zeisl, director of public relations and communications for the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), who noted that at a meeting of early childhood center directors last week "the subject didn't come up." (While BJE facilities must conform to federal, state and local guidelines, protocols for dealing with illness are determined by each individual center.)
"I don't think [the shortage] is going to affect us," said Angie Bass, director of the early childhood center at Temple Beth Am, who believes that sensationalized media reports are needlessly scaring parents. Bass said that the school maintains routine health precautions such as undergoing regular cleaning, a hand-washing policy for staff and students and a practice of sending children home if they need to wipe their noses more than three times in a 15-minute period.
Bass said that "if it really looked like a real epidemic and not just media hype," she would send home a letter informing parents and include advice from pediatricians. Thus far, however, none of the pediatricians she has consulted have expressed concern.
"As soon as the pediatricians are worried, then I'll worry," she said.
"I think it is a potential problem," said Dr. Carol Berkowitz, professor of clinical pediatrics at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance and president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "We never know how serious a flu season we will have."
At the same time, she said that last year was the first year that vaccination was suggested for healthy children between 6 and 24 months.
"Flu vaccine has never been recommended for healthy children over the age of 2 years," she added.
Berkowitz and others emphasize the importance of following CDC recommendations to help prevent flu. These include avoiding close contact with people who are sick, staying home from work or school if you are sick, covering your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, avoiding touching your eyes, nose or mouth and washing your hands frequently. Certain prescription antiviral medications (oseltamivir, rimantadine and amantadine) can either prevent the flu or lessen its symptoms if taken promptly after exposure to the virus -- or soon after symptoms begin. Symptoms may include fever, headache, chills, body aches, dry cough, stuffy nose and sore throat.
Unfortunately, even if individuals take precautions, they cannot control the habits of others. As the JHA's Forrest notes, this is especially true for the most vulnerable populations.
"The very young and very old, who get help from other people, are incredibly at risk because they depend on someone else's hygiene," she said.