I opened the window and influenza

Ready to spend a week or so delirious with fever and vomiting? A national shortage of influenza vaccine is sure to make this a flu season to remember.

With 46 million doses of vaccine produced in England by Chiron taken off the market over fears of possible contamination, clinics that usually begin to dole out preventive shots around this time of year are already rationing what little vaccine they expect to receive.

“We’re not getting flu shots at all this year,” confirmed Chico State University Health Clinic pharmacist Debbie Gott. “Like half the clinics in the country, we ordered ours from Chiron, and no one’s getting them. … We’re just keeping our fingers crossed that we get some, at least for our high-risk students.”

The student clinic usually vaccinates about 1,500 students per year, Gott said.

At Enloe Medical Center, the free flu shot clinics the hospital usually holds have been cancelled, Enloe spokeswoman Ann Prater said. The only vaccine on the way—1,700 doses of FluMist nasal spray—will be used for caregivers, who need to stay healthy for their patients, Prater said.

At Immediate Care Clinic on Vallombrosa Avenue, Medical Director Dr. Brad Smith said it was possible the federal government might get involved, doling out shots only to those in dire need of vaccination. Those would include health care professionals, adults over 65, kids between the ages of 6 months and 2 years and adults with chronic illness, for whom a bout with the flu could potentially be deadly.

“It’s impossible to predict right now,” he said. “I can see a scenario where [vaccine] could only be shipped to public health centers.” Smith said there was no way to know in advance how virulent the dominant strain of influenza will be for any given season. Last season, he noted, was widely—and wrongly—predicted to be one of the worst in recent history.

There are other methods for controlling flu outbreaks besides vaccination, Smith said, including antiviral drugs that must be taken within two days of coming in contact with the virus. These drugs, among them amantadine and rimantadine, are commonly given out to nursing home residents and other at-risk populations to suppress the virus. There should be no shortage of antivirals this year, Smith said.

A new nasal spray vaccine may also be available but is thought by some not to be as effective as the shot. In addition, there is a possibility that the existing vaccine can be diluted to half-strength, which would effectively double the available supply. But that strategy would take time to implement and could be considered too risky to try.

Those hoping to snag their own doses of vaccine over the Internet might also be out of luck. As of last week, a survey of online pharmacies found them all out of stock, although antiviral drugs were available at a cost of about $90 for 100 pills. Buyers of online medications should also know that counterfeit drugs have become a huge illegal industry, generating millions in illicit profits for organized crime syndicates in recent years.

Before the age of modern medicine, influenza outbreaks were among the worst public health disasters imaginable. The “Spanish flu” pandemic of 1918-19 killed between 20 and 40 million people around the world. Today, the flu still claims thousands of lives every year. According to the CDC Web site, “Epidemics of influenza … have been responsible for an average of approximately 36,000 deaths/year in the United States during 1990-1999.”

For an updated list of flu vaccination sites, call Butte County Public Health at 1-800-641-0015.