ATLANTA -- Two months after a flu vaccine shortage spread alarm across the country, a federal advisory panel Friday recommended the government ease restrictions on the nation's supply and make shots available to everyone 50 and older.
The move was prompted by worries all of a sudden that tens of thousands of doses of flu vaccine might go to waste.
Some states are reporting a surplus of flu vaccine. One reason is that many of the elderly or chronically ill people who were given top priority for flu vaccinations did not even try to obtain a shot because they figured they would not be able to get one. Also, the flu season has been mild so far.
The recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices came during an emergency meeting. The CDC usually accepts the panel's recommendations.
The U.S. supply of flu vaccine was cut in half earlier this year when a Liverpool, England, factory was shut down because of contamination.
In response, the government recommended in October that healthy adults delay or skip a flu shot this season to save vaccine for the estimated 98 million people in the country who need it most -- the elderly, infants or those with chronic conditions. Those people are at highest risk of severe complications or death from the flu, which kills on average 36,000 people and hospitalizes 200,000 each year in the country.
On Friday, however, the advisory panel said the CDC should focus first on helping state and local health departments reallocate supplies to any facing shortages, and then work to allow more people to get flu shots.
Under the panel's recommendation, the elderly, infants and the chronically ill would still be given the highest priority, but shots would also be made available to a second-tier group of people ages 50 to 64 as well as those who are in close contact with high-risk individuals, depending on vaccine availability in each state.
The emergency meeting was scheduled after a CDC study released Thursday found that more than half of all elderly or chronically ill adults have not yet gotten a flu shot. The committee concluded that those people in the high-risk groups who have not already sought a flu shot are unlikely to do so this season.
"Those at high risk have had that opportunity," said Dr. Greg Poland, a committee member and Mayo Clinic flu specialist. "We are in danger of seesawing from a year when everybody's concerned there's no vaccine, to not using what we have."
More than four out of five states report having sufficient supplies of flu shots, and at least six states have reported a surplus, the CDC reported.
The problem is that a flu shot is only good for the flu season it is made for, and any excess must be disposed of at the end of the season, which can run through April.
The committee also voted Friday to immediately recommend allowing children ages 2 to 18 to get the vaccine if they are in close contact with high-risk patients.
Some panel members wanted to go further and recommend offering shots to anyone who wants one, hoping that also would send the message to high-risk individuals that there is enough for them.
"Most people have a contact with a 50-year-old or young children, so I feel that if we are permissive and simple with our language, we will get the high-risk people coming in," said nurse Patsy Stinchfield, director of the Infectious Diseases Program at Children's Hospitals and Clinics in Minneapolis.