What If You Skipped Your Flu Shot?

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By Lisa Beyer

Many Americans who skipped getting a flu shot and haven't succumbed to what appears to be a bad version of the disease may be reconsidering now. Quite a few will curse their initial reluctance as the vaccine grows increasingly hard to find.

Theoretically, there is plenty of serum left. Manufacturers say they've delivered 127 million doses to providers, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 112 million people have been vaccinated so far. The remaining vials, however, aren't always where they're needed. Some communities, such as Somerville, Massachusetts and Washington D.C., are reporting shortages already and are scrambling to find stock elsewhere.

In all, vaccine makers will produce 135 million doses for the U.S. this season, a figure based on the typical demand. Manufacturers don't make more since unsold vials expire and would probably be useless anyway against the next season's flu because of regular mutations of the virus.

The supply doesn't come close to covering the population eligible for the vaccine: anyone older than six months who isn't allergic to it, or the vast majority of the U.S.'s 315 million population.

Should a severe flu push demand for vaccines higher than the planned supply, manufacturers would be unable to respond. That's because flu vaccine production -- an antiquated system using chicken eggs that has remained basically unchanged since the 1940s -- is a six-month long process.

That's why it's best to get the vaccine as soon as it's available, in September usually, when supplies are plentiful, before flu season begins.

(Lisa Beyer is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)

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-0- Jan/10/2013 23:03 GMT