A shortage of vaccine for influenza has raised public concerns about the potential for serious flu outbreaks among schoolchildren this winter.
While experts note that the disease can be easily transmitted in schools, officials with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other medical authorities are cautioning against overreaction.
“It’s difficult to predict how the flu season will go, and therefore difficult to say what the impact will be on schools,” said Curtis Allen, a spokesman for the Atlanta-based CDC.
Medical experts acknowledge that there is some potential for an increase in flu outbreaks because of the vaccine shortage, but they’re quick to point out that many school-age children typically do not receive flu shots. They also stress that, for the majority of healthy children, influenza is not a life-threatening illness.
“There’s been a lot of focus on kids’ getting severely ill,” said Dr. Matt Zahn, the medical director of communicable diseases at the Metro County Health Department in Louisville, Ky. “But [the flu] will not land most [children] in the hospital.”
CDC officials estimate that anywhere from 7 percent to 20 percent of the entire U.S. population develops severe influenza annually. In the winter of 2003-04, 51,000 deaths in the United States were attributed to the flu, mostly among the elderly. But 152 children also died from flu-related problems that year. (“Flu Outbreaks Force Schools to Adjust Plans,” Jan. 7, 2004.)
Last year, 84 million doses of the vaccine were distributed nationwide, and experts had anticipated the release of nearly 100 million doses this season. But one of only two flu-vaccine manufacturers serving the United States had its distribution license revoked by the British government, cutting the number of available doses to 54 million.
Most of those doses will be distributed to hospitals, pediatricians, and family physicians so they reach those most at risk: adults older than 65, persons with heart or lung diseases, infants 6 to 23 months old, pregnant women, health-care workers, and anyone having regular contact with an infant who is less than 6 months old.
Authorities are recommending that schools take common-sense steps such as encouraging frequent hand washing and teaching students not to sneeze or cough on others.
But some physicians say that those measures are ineffective because the flu is caused by an airborne virus that can be transmitted simply by breathing.
“It’s very difficult to prevent influenza by changing behavior, unlike other infections that are behavior-related,” said Dr. Robert Belsche, the director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Saint Louis University, located in St. Louis. “In the absence of vaccine, there’s very little you can do to prevent the spread of influenza.”