Government shutdown could slow flu season monitoring
by Patrick McCreless
pmccreless@annistonstar.com
Oct 04, 2013 | 5370 views |  0 comments | 55 55 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Mike Parris gives a flu shot to a patient at Martin's Pharmacy in Oxford.  (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
Mike Parris gives a flu shot to a patient at Martin's Pharmacy in Oxford. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
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A prolonged government shutdown could slow flu-season monitoring throughout the country, but supply and delivery of the vaccine should be unaffected for Alabama, health officials say.

The Calhoun County Health Department and some local pharmacies have flu vaccine available and expect no disruption in their supplies due to the federal government shutdown that began Monday. However, the federal government is not monitoring the flu season due to the shutdown, a situation that could impede knowledge of where the disease is most prevalent, possibly slowing the response time to those areas, health officials say.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced earlier this week that it will not monitor the spread of the flu this year during the government shutdown. Flu season typically starts in the fall and peaks in January or February.

Donald Williamson, Alabama’s state health officer, said a long disruption in flu season surveillance could be a problem.

"We might not get quite as good of a picture of the flu season as we normally do," Williamson said. "We use the surveillance to tell us if there is anything unexpected ... what virus strains are circulating and if the vaccines are being effective."

Williamson said, however, that even with a prolonged shutdown, the state will still have some flu data through its own monitoring activities.

"Most of the surveillance is done internally using Alabama resources," Williamson said.

Dr. William Bohannon, medical director of the occupational health clinic at Regional Medical Center in Anniston, said he expects little effect on flu tracking from the government shutdown in the short term.

"A lot of it is going to depend on how long the shutdown will be," Bohannon said. "If it's just two or three weeks, it won't be much of an impact."

Meanwhile, the shutdown will have no effect on the state's flu vaccine supply, Williamson said.

"The shutdown won't impact delivery," Williamson said. "We have been talking with staff in county health departments, and they have been seeing fairly strong use of our flu vaccine."

Phyllis Coughran, public health immunization manager for the Alabama Department of Public Health for Calhoun and surrounding counties, said the Calhoun County Health Department had plenty of flu vaccine on hand.

"All the vaccine has been delivered at its normal time," Coughran said. "The county health department has already done a couple of flu clinics."

According to the CDC, vaccination is still the best way to prevent flu infection. The agency recommends residents 6 months old or older get vaccinated as soon as possible since it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to take effect. Those most susceptible to the virus are pregnant women, adults at least 65 years old and people with certain medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes and chronic lung disease.

CDC statistics show flu vaccination coverage among children was 56.6 percent during the 2012-2013 flu season, a 5.1 percent increase compared to the previous flu season and a 12.9 percent increase from the 2009-2010 season. For adults, vaccination coverage was 41.5 percent during the 2012-2013 flu season, a 2.7 percent increase compared to the 2011-2012 flu season and a 1.1 percent increase compared to the 2009-2010 season.

Mike Parris, pharmacist at Martin's Pharmacy in Oxford, said he's had flu vaccine on hand for several weeks. The cost of the vaccine is covered by most insurers and Medicare, Parris said. He said his pharmacy has had few customers wanting the vaccine until recently, though.

"We're starting to see more now," Parris said. "As the weather starts getting cooler, more people will come in."

Carrie Johnson, nurse clinic supervisor at the health department, said her office has several residents come in for flu vaccinations in recent weeks.

"So far, I'd say it's a little more than last year," Johnson said.

The health department has scheduled flu vaccine clinics from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 11, from 1 to 4 p.m. on Oct. 15 and from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Oct. 18. Residents can still visit the clinic at any other time of the week and request the vaccine. The shots are covered by insurance, Medicare and Medicaid, however, the department will vaccinate anyone, regardless of their ability to pay.

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.

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