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Flu Season ‘Typical’ as U.S. Pushes Shot for All Ages

Flu Shots
Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

The coming influenza season is shaping up to be a normal one, after the swine flu strain that swept the globe last year faded into a typical mix of circulating strains, U.S. health officials said today.

This year’s flu shot provides “excellent matches” for the strains of influenza that have circulated from July through September, said Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC expanded its vaccine recommendation this year to everyone more than 6 months old.

“You and your doctor don’t need to wonder whether you need to get the flu shot,” Frieden said at a press conference in Washington. “If you’re old enough to ask, you should get the flu shot.”

From June through September, the flu cases tested around the world have followed “typical seasonal patterns,” with cases divided among three families of influenza strain: H1N1, H3N2, and Influenza B, according to a study published by the CDC today. The report examined the global spread of flu during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter months.

A normal flu season may benefit vaccine companies, hospitals and makers of products led by rubber gloves and hand sanitizers, said John L. Sullivan, an analyst at Leerink Swann & Co. in Boston. While fears of swine flu, or H1N1, drove up business for many of the companies in early 2009, the actual flu season turned out lighter than expected, holding down sales, he said. Health insurers, by contrast, may see costs rise.

‘Positive for Industry’

“If we just get a normal 2010-2011 flu season, it’s probably a net positive contributor for most of the health-care industry,” he said. “It means more people showing up in emergency rooms and at doctor’s visits and that would be a positive for hospitals and maybe an incremental negative for the insurers.”

Influenza is a rapidly evolving virus, and the severity of the season depends on which strains are circulating and how well a population has been inoculated. Annual deaths associated with seasonal flu ranged from 3,349 to 48,614 during the last 30 years, according to the CDC. About 90 percent of flu-related deaths are in people ages 65 or older.

Vaccines from Paris-based Sanofi-Aventis SA, London-based AstraZeneca Plc and Basel, Switzerland-based Novartis AG, and CSL Ltd. of Australia protect against the three strains of flu that scientists predict are most likely to circulate, the CDC said. That includes last year’s swine flu, which has replaced older versions of H1N1, according to the CDC.

180 Million Doses

Vaccine makers will produce as much as 180 million doses for this flu season, Jeff Dimond, a spokesman for the CDC, said in an interview. Last year, there were about 110 million doses of seasonal vaccine available along with about 119 million doses of H1N1 vaccine shipped, he said.

The circulating strains will also respond to Roche Holding AG’s Tamiflu and GlaxoSmithKline Plc’s Relenza, the best-selling treatments for people who become sick with the flu, according to the CDC report. Roche is based in Basel, Switzerland and Glaxo is based in London.

Influenza vaccination rates should be better for the current season than in previous years, Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association in Washington, said in a telephone interview Oct. 6.

Increased Vaccinations

“If I was a betting man, I would be betting on the fact that the numbers would be higher,” Benjamin said. The message from health officials is clearer and less confusing because the U.S. has recommended that almost everyone be immunized and because the seasonal flu vaccine and H1N1 vaccine are now contained in a single shot, he said.

People who want to get vaccinated have several choices. In addition to flu shots, AstraZeneca offers a nasal spray version called FluMist. Sanofi also received approval this year for a high-dose version of the shot for people over the age of 65, whose immune systems are less efficient at producing virus-fighting antibodies after vaccination.

About 50 million people in the U.S. caught swine flu last year, according to CDC estimates. Children were more likely to get sick than in a typical year. There were fewer flu deaths last year because people over the age of 65, who are most vulnerable, proved unusually resistant to catching the strain.

Last year, about 40 percent of eligible Americans received a seasonal flu vaccine, up from 33 percent in the previous season, according to the CDC.

Pandemic Scare

After the pandemic scare in 2009, vaccine company executives said they expect more Americans to get vaccinated and to seek the inoculation earlier than they have in previous years.

“It’s a reaction to last year’s pandemic,” said Len Lavenda, a Sanofi spokesman, in a telephone interview today. “That plus the CDC recommendation that everyone over 6 months old should be getting vaccinated is driving interest. Plus there is a lot more supply available this year.”

More school-based clinics are ordering shots this year, and pediatricians are seeking doses earlier in the season than in the past, said Chris Ambrose, vice president of medical affairs at AstraZeneca’s MedIummune unit, in an interview today. “ In the past they would wait until late September,” he said. “This year if they receive their vaccine in July or August they are beginning to give it out right away.”

70 Million Doses

Sanofi, the largest U.S. vaccine supplier, will ship more than 70 million doses of seasonal flu during the 2010-2011 influenza season compared with 52 million doses in 2009, Lavenda said. AstraZeneca is producing about 13.5 million doses of the nasal spray seasonal flu vaccine FluMist, company spokeswoman Karen Lancaster said in an e-mailed statement.

CSL’s vaccine is being marketed in the U.S. by Merck & Co., based in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey. Merck anticipates it will distribute about 7 million doses during the current season, spokeswoman Pam Eisele said today in an e-mailed statement. All of the product should be delivered by October, she said.

Walgreen Co., the largest U.S. drugstore chain, began administering seasonal flu vaccines in the U.S. in August and has given 2.25 million shots. Vaccinations at its pharmacies and clinics surged five hundred percent last year during the pandemic, the Deerfield, Illinois-based company said in a statement today.

Last year’s early flu season contributed to an increase in prescriptions and non-pharmacy items, said Walgreen Chief Executive Officer Greg Wasson on a Sept. 28 conference call. Walgreen distributed 7 million seasonal and H1N1 flu shots last year.

CVS Caremark Corp., the second largest U.S. drug store chain, hasn’t broken out financial information related to flu shots, said Michael DeAngelis, a spokesman for the Woonsocket, Rhode Island-based company. CVS hasn’t disclosed how many shots it provided last year, he said.

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