Health officials worry as fewer people get flu vaccines
10:25 PM CST on Friday, January 16, 2009
By FRANK TREJO / The Dallas Morning News
With the flu season starting to gear up, North Texas public health officials are concerned that fewer people have been vaccinated against the virus.
The Garland Health Department has even slashed its vaccine price to $5 — down from $20 — in an effort to get more people to protect themselves before the season peaks in February.
“We’re concerned that we may not have enough people immunized to prevent the spread of the flu once it really hits here,” said Richard Briley, Garland’s managing director of health.
Dallas County health officials say their vaccination numbers are down about 50 percent compared with last year, while Garland, which has its own health department, says its numbers are down by 35 percent. Collin and Tarrant counties also reported drops.
Officials said there may be a variety of factors for the drop, including the fact that the flu season so far has been relatively mild nationwide. There are also reports that last year’s vaccine did not target the strains that appeared, meaning lots of people who were vaccinated still got sick. Plus there may be possible confusion over news that the leading flu treatment appears to be ineffective against one of this year’s most common strains.
Briley and others said early reports indicate that the most prevalent flu strain appears to be resistant to Tamiflu, a leading flu treatment. But this year’s flu vaccine, unlike other years, appears to be very effective against the strains that are in circulation, he said.
Peggy Wittie, chief epidemiologist in Collin County, said it was a “sad possibility” that people may be confused about the difference between the flu vaccine and Tamiflu.
Jacqueline Bell, a spokeswoman for Dallas County Health and Human Services, said the department still has about 2,900 adult and 440 children vaccines available — a high number at this point in the flu season.
“It’s very concerning to us since it appears there is resistance to Tamiflu… that means people who contract the flu may have a more difficult course,” Bell said. Officials note that other medications can treat the flu, but Tamiflu has been the leading drug. It must be prescribed by a doctor within 48 hours of the flu’s onset. “People can get protection with the vaccine, and there is an ample supply this year, but people are just not taking advantage of that,” Bell said. Bell noted that in addition to public health facilities such as Dallas County’s, vaccines also are available at a variety of places such as smaller clinics, private doctors offices and even pharmacies.
Vanassa Joseph, a spokeswoman for Tarrant County Public Health, said her agency also has seen a drop in the number of people getting the vaccine, but the reasons are uncertain. “Each season is different,” Joseph said. “We don’t know what to factor into it. Maybe some people just have not gotten around to it this year. There’s a myriad of reasons for why they may not have gotten the flu shot. “But what we do know is that the flu vaccine is the best prevention measure,” she said.
Wittie, from Collin County, said statistics indicate the flu cases are only now showing an upswing in North Texas. About 6 percent of samples in Dallas County are being confirmed as flu, while in Collin County it has been about 10 percent. Wittie noted that flu spreads especially quickly among school-age children. “We have vaccines for children 3 and up and for adults,” Wittie said. “We really encourage people to take advantage of that.”