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CDC: Flu season off to slower than normal start

Only 5 cases reported nationwide

Mayo Clinic
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The number of flu cases in the nation is lower than usual at this time of year, a top U.S. health official said on Wednesday.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Julie Gerberding -- addressing fears prompted by an unexpected shortage of flu vaccine this season -- said only five flu cases have been identified in the country so far this flu season, which began the first week of October.

"So we're getting off to a bit of a slow start," Gerberding said. "That gives us a little more time to get those doses out there."

The CDC director was referring to the 3 million doses per week being shipped across the country -- doses the CDC is asking to be reserved for people in high-risk groups who really need the vaccine.

High-risk groups include people over 65, children ages 6 months to 2 years, pregnant women, people with chronic illnesses and health care workers.

"What we need to do is get them where we need them the most, that's our challenge right now," Gerberding said. "But we're very optimistic that the seniors and very young children and those who need the doses will be able to get them."

Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced that an additional 2.6 million doses of the flu vaccine will be available in January, part of an aggressive effort by health officials to compensate for the massive vaccine shortage.

The 2.6 million doses will push the number of vaccinations available to about 60 million, far short of the nearly 90 million flu vaccinations administered last year.

Thompson said he would not declare a public health emergency because it would "just create confusion."

"We do have the ability to deal with the coming flu season and help protect people from the complications of this illness, particularly for those who are the most vulnerable," he said.

Canada may help

Thompson said health officials are aggressively working with countries, including Canada, to see if they have extra doses of vaccine that could be made available.

"We have ongoing negotiations today, as we have for some time, with our neighbors to the north, Canada. And they've indicated that they have some, and our FDA is working with Canada as we speak," he said.

Lines at clinics, pharmacies and other sites offering the flu vaccine swelled after British authorities announced Oct. 5 they were suspending production of the vaccine at the Liverpool plant of Chiron Corp., an American company, because of contamination problems.

Chiron had contracted to deliver to the United States 46 million to 48 million doses, nearly half of the country's projected need of 100 million doses.

The 2.6 million doses to be ready in January are being made by the French company Aventis Pasteur, which has supplied about 56 million doses so far. Health officials said the new doses are being made from concentrate used to make the other doses.

In addition, about 1 million to 2 million doses of a nasal form of the vaccine called FluMist is available.

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