Dec. 10, 2003 — Winter's here again. And never mind that the Virgin Islands is not subjected to snowy winter weather; we must endure the winter illnesses that know no geographical boundaries. Have you gotten your flu shot yet?
Health care providers in the Virgin Islands are doing well by the population this winter: So far there is not a shortage of the vaccine. News media have filed dire reports of shortages in areas of the United States, causing people to be warned they may have to hunt around for a shot, that no more can be manufactured for this season, that it may not protect against this winter's new strain, or that they may have to try "FluMist," a new product in plentiful supply but a wise alternative, the Centers for Diseases Control (CDC) warns, only for healthy persons aged five to 49 – not the people who have been most urged to get the protection of flu shots: those over age 65, very young children, people of any age with chronic medical conditions.
Last Friday the Immunization Clinics offered flu shots for adults. Now the Immunization Clinics are offering free shots for children on all three islands, according to a release today from Government House. With a plan to inoculate the anticipated high-risk groups, the shots are being offered for children age 6 months to 23 months and for caregivers of children younger than 6 months. The release gives no dates for getting shots, but says to call these numbers for information: on St. Croix, 772-7670; on St. John, 776-6400, and on St. Thomas, 776-8311 Ext. 2151 or 2148.
"Early evidence suggests the current flu season could be severe and it is not too late to get the flu shot," said nurse Beverly Blackwell, administrator of the immunization program, in the release.
Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the CDC, held a lengthy press conference Monday afternoon, and said: "What we know about the epidemic right now is that the flu is widespread in at least 13 areas of the country, 13 states. As of the end of last week, there were only two jurisdictions that had not reported any influenza. That was the Washington, D.C., area and the state of Massachusetts."
Further, "the main concern that we're facing at CDC right now is, of course, the gap between the demand and the supply of the influenza vaccine." Of the 83 million doses manufactured, about 73 million were the inactivated vaccine for adults and that has "largely been distributed." CDC is now concentrating on getting cooperation in redistribution and locating perhaps European sources of additional product.
The press conference transcript — and much more information and updated statistics — are all available on the CDC's new flu Web site.
Despite the media reports of shortage fears across the United States, the Virgin Islands has vaccine ready to offer the at-risk groups.
The Government House release quotes the CDC recommendations for at-risk groups who should obtain the shots:
— Health care and emergency response workers
— Employees and residents of nursing home and long-term care facilities
— Employees of assisted living and other residences for high-risk persons
— Household members with young children and teens
— Children or adults with sickle cell disease, asthma, other respiratory ailments, diabetes or a weakened immune system
— Those with weakened immune systems caused by HIV/AIDS or other chronic diseases
— Children and teenagers (6 months to 18 years) who are on long-term aspirin therapy and therefore could develop Reyes syndrome following flu
— Women who will be more than three months pregnant during the flu season.
The V.I. health care system stands ready to provide flu shots to high-risk V.I. residents.
In addition to the CDC Web site, most media Web sites report daily stories on the topic, and many medical sites, including WebMD and healthcare.com, have information on symptoms, complications, and other aspects. Following is an example of the CDC's weekly report; this is the latest posted, for the week ending Nov. 29:
" Influenza activity in the United States continued to increase during week 48 (November 23 – 29, 2003). One thousand three hundred nine (39.1%) of 3,350 specimens collected from throughout the United States and tested by U.S. World Health Organization (WHO) and National Respiratory and Enteric Virus Surveillance System (NREVSS) collaborating laboratories were positive for influenza. The proportion of patient visits to sentinel providers for influenza-like illness (ILI) overall was 5.1%, which is above the national baseline of 2.5%. The proportion of deaths attributed to pneumonia and influenza was 6.5%, which is below the epidemic threshold for the week. Thirteen state health departments reported widespread influenza activity, 16 states and New York City reported regional activity, 6 states reported local influenza activity, 13 states, Guam, and Puerto Rico reported sporadic influenza activity, and 1 state and the District of Columbia reported no influenza activity."
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