Vaccine late again

Similarity to early symptoms of anthrax could cause run on shots

By Marty Russell

Daily Journal

This year's flu season isn't expected to be any worse than last year's but health officials still expect heightened public interest in receiving flu shots this season because of the similarity in early symptoms between the flu and anthrax.

"It's not expected to be any more virulent or severe than in previous years," Dr. William Bell, a physician at the Barnes Crossing Medical Clinic Urgent Care Center, said of this year's expected flu strains.

"But people are going to be a lot more concerned with the early symptoms," Bell said. "Recently, with the West Nile virus, we had several calls about that."

The early symptoms of anthrax infection are similar to those of the flu, including fever, fatigue and respiratory problems.

"All viral infections start out with symptoms similar to the flu," Dr. Mary Currier, state epidemiologist with the Mississippi Department of Health, said of the early symptoms of anthrax and other such infections.

"This really is going to be difficult," Currier said if the public starts associating those early symptoms with possible anthrax exposure. "We always have an increase in flu-like symptoms this time of the year."

The state has ordered 110,000 doses of flu vaccine and began offering the shots last week at all of its county health offices. The cost of the vaccine is $10, an increase this year over last year's $8 cost.

Liz Dawson, community health director for North Mississippi Health Services in Tupelo, said free flu shots will be offered to the public at a health fair set for 1 p.m. until 7 p.m. Nov. 8 at the Tupelo Furniture Market.

The hospital is doubling the number of doses it offered last year from 2,000 to 4,000.

"We're looking for more folks because we're doing it earlier this year," Dawson said.

Last year, the nation's supply of flu vaccine was delayed and a shortage developed because laboratories were having difficulty growing the strains needed to produce that year's vaccine. A similar problem developed this year but, unlike last year, officials don't expect a shortage of the vaccine this year.

"It's sort of like last year," Bell said. "There's been a delay in production but all clinics should have it no later than Oct. 30. We'll be targeting high risk patients first. There should be enough for everybody but in the event there's not, we're targeting those at high risk first."

Those at higher risk for getting the flu are people over 65 and anyone with weakened immune systems, heart trouble or respiratory problems.

"Although there was a delay in delivery, now is the time to get vaccinations for those at high risk for complications from the flu," said Currier. "We're recommending that anyone at high risk go ahead and get vaccinated now and those not at high risk get vaccinated in November."

Mississippi's flu season generally peaks in late January and early February. It takes about two weeks after receiving the vaccine for it to take effect.

Officials said they do expect the current anthrax scare to translate into more people getting flu shots this year but still expect some panic when people begin getting the symptoms.

"You have to remember the flu shot is not perfect at preventing it," Currier said. "If you get seriously ill and have a high fever for days and days, you need to see your doctor anyway. But they only need to worry about it being anthrax if there's been some kind of exposure. Most of the general public needs to be more concerned with the flu than anthrax."

The concern could actually be a public health silver lining from the anthrax threat.

"I hope people will go out and get vaccinated. That's one way to deal with the problem," Currier said of the concern.

"That could be an offshoot of this," Bell said. "The more people immunized the less people with flu and the less flu ... At the end of the year it will be interesting to see if the vaccination rates increase."

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