County prepares for flu bug's arrival


J.J. Finely Elementary School first-grader Mia Delaney, 6, holds hands with her mother, Tami Delaney, before she's given her dose of FluMist on Tuesday.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Wednesday, November 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
Health officials expect the flu to arrive in North Central Florida with the Thanksgiving holidays.
This year, with the wider availability of flu vaccine, however, they expect to be ready for it.
Between now and Thanksgiving, every youngster in the county's public elementary and middle schools has the opportunity to receive a defensive dose of FluMist, the influenza vaccine in nasal-spray form.
The vaccine is being offered at no charge, and although the number of families taking advantage of the free doses has been lower than hoped, county officials expect the response to grow as word of the program spreads. In the first two days of the program, more than 385 children have received a dose of FluMist.
"This is the first week, and we are doing about three schools a day," said Alachua County's health director, Tom Belcuore. "The clinics will continue in elementary and middle schools until Thanksgiving."
Belcuore said the vaccine is being offered in the county's smaller schools first. In all, some 18,000 youngsters are eligible. Parents must provide written consent in advance for a child to receive the FluMist vaccine.
FluMist can be given to anyone between the ages of 5 and 49, provided they are in good health. The nasal-spray flu vaccine is made with live, weakened flu viruses that do not cause the flu. The flu shot, an inactivated vaccine containing killed virus, is given with a needle.
Belcuore believes that by vaccinating elementary and middle school children - the group most likely to bring influenza home to the adults in the household - it will be possible to reduce the number of cases of flu in the community this fall and winter.
So far, despite a few cases reported in Broward County, most of Florida has been flu-free. But that probably will change, Belcuore warns, as students and families return from the Thanksgiving holidays.
It takes about two weeks for the antibodies in the flu vaccine to develop and provide maximum protection. Typically, the flu season stretches from November to April, with most cases occurring between late December and early March.
The Alachua County Health Department has received all of its expected vaccine and all of the department's clinics are offering flu shots on a daily basis.
The University of Florida's Student Health Care Center has had to temporarily cancel a full schedule of flu shot clinics, due to delays in receiving vaccine. Officials at UF say they've been notified that their latest shipment was en route. They have ordered 5,000 doses, and are expecting 720 in this delivery. Until it arrives, all clinics have been canceled.
Students and faculty members should check the Student Health Care Center Web site for the latest information on flu shot clinics. FluMist is available now, at a cost of $40 for a student or $50 for a faculty member.
The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta recommend that all healthy children 6 months to age 5 get the flu vaccine. That's a change from last year's recommendation, which was to vaccine children between 6 and 23 months. However, the only company that makes a flu vaccine approved for children under 5 is running almost a month behind schedule producing it.
Each year in the United States, between 5 percent and 20 percent of the population will come down with influenza.
Federal health officials say while the flu shot rate for young children doubled from the previous season in 2005-06, only about half the eligible children got the shot, and only about a third of children with chronic illnesses were protected.
Because the strains of flu virus change from year to year, companies that produce the vaccine have to make a different formula for each flu season.
Each season's vaccine is prepared to cover what are believed to be the most common two or three strains of flu. This year's version includes three viruses, one A (H3N2) virus, one A (H1N1) virus, and one B virus. Each must be grown individually before the three are combined late in the production process. One of the strains in this year's vaccine is particularly slow-growing, which has led to production delays.
Despite complaints about delayed shipments, officials with the CDC say there will be plenty of vaccine available for those who need it this flu season. Between 110 and 115 million doses will be produced.
That's means more people will have the opportunity to roll up their sleeves for flu shots than in any previous season on record.
Diane Chun can be reached at 374-5041 or chund@gvillesun.com.

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