CHICAGO – Gov. Rod Blagojevich today announced that Illinois is encouraging local health departments and health care providers who have adequate supplies of influenza vaccine to expand access of vaccine beyond the highest risk populations to other groups that would normally be encouraged to receive the immunization, including people 50 years of age or older and those in close contact with high-risk individuals. The change will go into effect on January 3, 2005.
The Governor’s recommendation is in response to warnings from his Director of Public Health Dr. Eric E. Whitaker that a flu outbreak could be especially severe this year, given the unusually low number of individuals vaccinated due to the shortage, both low and high risk. In an average year with normal vaccination patterns, approximately 3000 Illinoisans die from influenza and pneumonia.
"Since the flu vaccine shortage began, hundreds of thousands of people in Illinois who normally get flu shots have held back to make sure those who needed it most could get it. Unfortunately, that means more people are vulnerable to the virus than in a normal year – including many who are elderly and have chronic illnesses. We want to make sure people who need protection get it so that when the flu season hits in full force, the impact on our citizens is as minimal as possible," said the Governor. "Several months of the flu season remain and we have yet to hit the peak, so we need to remain vigilant in taking precautions against spreading the flu virus. Our top priority is still to reach the sick, elderly and very young who have not yet gotten their shots. But we also want to provide the vaccine to people 50 years of age and older and those who live with people in the high risk categories so we can prevent a dangerous outbreak this winter."
After it was announced in October that the nation faced a severe vaccine shortage, Gov. Blagojevich instructed the Department of Public Health to follow CDC recommendations and asked health care providers to use all available supplies to vaccinate those at the highest risk of severe disease or death. Health officials have reported that many individuals eligible for flu shots did not get a vaccine due to reports of the shortage, long lines or chose to step aside for others who were at greater risk.
"Some people may think they are not eligible for flu vaccine because they don’t live in a nursing home or aren’t confined to a hospital bed – they’re wrong. Through the steps we are taking, we hope to reach people who were eligible before, but didn’t know it, as well as many people who live and work with those at the highest risk," said Dr. Whitaker.
Soon after news of the vaccine shortage, the Governor sought additional flu vaccine from Europe to ensure Illinois would have an adequate supply to protect its most vulnerable citizens. His administration located nearly 300,000 doses of flu vaccine made in Germany and France that could be shipped to Illinois for distribution immediately upon approval from the Food and Drug Administration. Today, the Governor reiterated the need for additional vaccine supplies.
"Fewer than half of the people in Illinois who are usually protected against the flu have gotten vaccines this year. That means a mild outbreak could quickly become severe. We need additional vaccine soon before flu activity peaks," the Governor said. "We have been working with the FDA for more than two months to give them all relevant information about the vaccine from Europe they need to approve our request. And while they’ve given their counterparts in the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the green light to import vaccine from Germany, they’ve dragged their feet on the Illinois request. The risk is far too great for them to continue this waiting game."
As restrictions on vaccine are loosened, Dr. Whitaker said it will be up to each of the state’s 95 local health departments to determine if they have sufficient supply of the vaccine to expand the eligibility requirements.
The Department of Public Health encourages individuals in the following groups to contact their health care provider or local health department about obtaining a flu shot:
· Children ages 6 months to 23 months;
· Persons 50 years of age and older;
· Persons 2 to 64 years of age with underlying medical conditions;
· Pregnant women;
· Residents of long-term care facilities;
· Children ages 6 months to 18 years of age who are on long-term aspirin therapy;
· Household contacts of persons belonging to anyone in the priority group;
· Health care workers providing direct patient care; and
· Out-of-home caregivers and household contacts of children younger than 6 months of age.
Eligibility under the Vaccines for Children (VFC) program has also been expanded to include VFC-eligible children who are household contacts of persons in high-risk groups. Children who are eligible for the VFC vaccine include those 18 years or younger; eligible for Medicaid; uninsured; or Native American or Alaskan Native. The VFC eligibility expansion is effective immediately.
Influenza, commonly called the flu, is caused by viruses that infect the respiratory tract and spreads from person to person when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Flu symptoms include fever (usually 100 degrees F in adults and often higher in children), dry cough, runny or stuffy nose, headache, muscle aches and extreme fatigue.
After a person is infected with the virus, symptoms usually appear within one to four days. The infection is considered contagious for up to five days after symptoms appear and illness usually lingers for a week or two. Each year, an estimated 10 percent to 20 percent of the population contracts influenza.