October is the best time for flu vaccinations, and the US and Europe are preparing for what experts hope is high demand as countries seek to avoid a “twindemic” with COVID-19.
“There is great concern when we go into the fall and winter months and into the flu season that we get the dreaded overlap” of the flu and coronavirus, “said Dr. Anthony Fauci of the US National Institutes of Health on Thursday. He got his own flu shot earlier in the week.
A record number of flu vaccine doses are on the way, between 194 million and 198 million for the US alone ̵
There is still no way to know how many are looking for shots this year, and some people occasionally find pharmacies or clinics temporarily sold out.
Be patient: Influenza vaccine is sent gradually. Less than half have been distributed so far, and the CDC and manufacturers say more are in transit.
“This year, I think everyone wants to get their vaccine and maybe want it sooner than usual,” Dr. Daniel Jernigan from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention for the Associated Press. “If you are not able to get your vaccination now, do not get frustrated” but keep trying.
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Pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur, which delivers nearly 250 million doses worldwide including 80 million to the United States, says they have shipments delayed in November.
Vaccine maker Seqirus is investigating whether it can squeeze out “a limited number of additional doses” to meet the high demand, spokeswoman Polina Miklush said.
Brewing flu vaccine is time consuming. Once production is complete for the year, countries can not just order more – which provides a stressful balancing act as they guess how many people are rolling up their sleeves.
Germany usually buys 18 to 19 million doses, and this year ordered more. As the German Minister of Health Jens Spahn said: “If we succeed together in getting the flu vaccination so high that all 26 million doses are actually used, I would be a very happy Minister of Health.”
Spain bought extra doses in hopes of vaccinating far more elderly adults and pregnant women than usual along with key staff at health facilities and nursing homes.
In contrast, Poland, which last year had 100,000 doses unused, did not anticipate high demand this fall and sought more.
The good news: The same precautions that help stop coronavirus spread – wearing masks, avoiding crowds, washing hands and keeping your distance – can also help block the flu.
Winter just ended in the southern hemisphere, and countries like South Africa, Australia, Argentina, and Chile hardly diagnosed any flu thanks to COVID-19 restrictions combined with a major push for flu vaccinations.
As the coronavirus is still circulating and cold weather is coming just as more schools and businesses are reopening, there is no guarantee that countries in the northern hemisphere will be as lucky with the flu.
“We do not know how much flu – but there will be flu,” predicted Dr. William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University and the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
An influenza vaccine only protects against influenza, not coronavirus. And while its effectiveness varies from year to year, people vaccinated against the flu do not get as ill and avoid pneumonia, hospitalization and death, Schaffner said.
The CDC estimated that the flu infected 400,000 Americans last year and killed 22,000.
Adding influenza to the COVID-19 toll – which has killed more than 1 million people worldwide including more than 206,000 Americans – would further burden hospitals. Both influenza and coronavirus have similar symptoms, and although mild, Schaffner warned of confusion as people seek tests to learn what disease they have and if anyone they have been around needs quarantine.
“Take the flu out of the equation this fall,” Jernigan advised.
Who needs flu vaccine?
The United States recommends it to anyone starting at 6 months of age. But the flu is most dangerous for people over the age of 65, young children, pregnant women and people with certain health conditions like heart disease, asthma, even diabetes.
Most Americans with insurance can get it without a co-pay, and there are different kinds to choose from: Regular shots, two types of shots aimed at giving older adults a little extra protection, and a nasal spray.
The CDC does not recommend each other. If you can not find your favorite type, “we ask people not to shop and wait forever,” Jernigan said. “The best vaccine to get is the vaccine that is available to you.”
This year, the CDC wants states to increase influenza vaccinations among blacks and Hispanics who are less likely to get a shot than whites and who also have an extra risk of COVID-19. Some states also hold flu vaccinations and outdoor clinics to avoid crowds.
And at the same time, they are being immunized against the flu, older adults and people with chronic diseases should also ask to get a vaccine against a type of pneumonia that is a frequent complication, U.S. officials urged.
In much of Europe, high-risk people are given priority. France has ordered 30% more flu vaccine than last year, with the first shot given to the high risk as vaccinations begin later this month.
In Italy, doctors and pharmacists have expressed concern about the supply, as the Ministry of Health is negotiating with vaccine manufacturers to ensure that anyone who wants the vaccine can get it. Italy also lowered the threshold – from 65 to 60 – to receive the flu vaccine free of charge.
The UK Health Department expects enough doses for almost half of the population, but warns that incremental deliveries could mean some doctors and pharmacies only get shots later in the autumn. The UK typically offers free flu vaccines to older adults, pregnant women and certain other risk groups and is discussing whether others should qualify for a free shot this year.
The World Health Organization said last week that some countries are struggling to ensure they have had enough flu vaccine. The WHO encouraged countries concerned about the shortage to prioritize health workers and older adults.