Record 103 million flu vaccines distributed in US

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WASHINGTON, Nov 10 (Reuters) More than 103 million doses of influenza vaccine have been distributed to clinics, hospitals and pharmacies across the United States this year, the most ever, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

Up to 132 million doses will be available by the end of flu vaccination season, which can run into December and January, the CDC said. Flu season usually peaks in January and February in the United States.

''This is really good news. The amount of vaccine that has been distributed so far means almost all influenza vaccine providers should have vaccine in their offices,'' the CDC's Dr Jeanne Santoli told reporters in a telephone briefing yesterday.

''Thanks to the increased production of flu vaccine, more people than ever can get protection from a potentially very serious disease. We are hopeful that this year a record number of people will get vaccinated.'' The US flu season itself is off to a slow start this year, with just a few cases reported so far, the CDC said.

US health officials are working to increase both the production and use of flu vaccines.

Flu infects between 5 and 20 per cent of the population each year and kills an estimated 36,000 Americans in an average year, most of them elderly. It can also kill young children, often times previously healthy children.

And the flu vaccine market has been plagued with shortages and distribution problems in recent years.

In 2004, British officials unexpectedly closed a flu vaccine plant because of contamination, cutting in half that season's supply of vaccines for the US market. Long lines formed outside clinics as people clamored to get flu vaccines.

Experts agreed the obvious answer was to get more companies to make flu vaccines. But companies wanted a guaranteed market, as millions of doses of flu vaccines get thrown away, unused, every year.

So the CDC has gradually widened its recommendations for who should get the vaccine.

''The vaccine is recommended for anyone who wants to decrease their risk of getting the flu,'' Santoli said.

''There are more folks making vaccine for the US market.

That partly has to do with the fact that there are fairly strong recommendations for the use of the vaccine,'' she added.

Health experts are also worried about a flu pandemic, and want as many vaccine factories up and running as possible for when one comes. Flu pandemics hit about three times a century as circulating strains of influenza viruses mutate and change, and the last one was in 1968.

Flu vaccine has to be made fresh every year to match the strains that are going around and it takes months to make a batch.

Five companies make flu vaccine for the US market -- Sanofi Pasteur, Australia's CSL Ltd, GlaxoSmithKline Plc, Novartis AG and nasal spray maker MedImmune, recently acquired by AstraZeneca Plc.

Reuters SBA VP0715

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