The flu bug that bit Boone County early this year has become more widespread in December, causing a shortage of the injectable vaccines used to combat the virus.
The Columbia/Boone County Department of Health said Thursday that it is out of injectable vaccinations. The department had received 227 reported cases of the flu from area hospitals since Nov. 6. More than 50 cases were reported on Monday and Tuesday.
On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added Missouri to its list of 24 states with widespread flu activity.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said the government had arranged for 100,000 doses of adult vaccines to be distributed based on each state’s population. In addition, 150,000 doses of children’s vaccine are expected to be shipped to states by January, Thompson said.
Nationwide, at least 20 children have died. Schools have shut down, emergency rooms have been filled with sick children and doctors’ offices have been forced to turn away droves of people seeking flu shots.
Some experts predict this year’s death toll easily could surpass the annual average of 36,000 flu deaths. Mary Martin, the Columbia/Boone County Department of Health’s public health manager, said she did not know whether the department would receive any of the doses being distributed by the government.
Martin said the virus is getting more virulent because people who got the flu at the beginning of the season are now infecting more people. She added that the reported cases could each represent 10 to 20 unreported cases.
Greg Kilgore, owner of Kilgore’s Medical Pharmacy, said this season’s flu is a slightly different strain from that in the vaccinations, making it more resistant.
Martin said the department will not be able to order more vaccinations until next flu season because suppliers take three to four months to grow the viruses.
Injectable vaccinations run out faster because they are the only inoculations available to people in high-risk groups. Martin said those groups include children younger than 5, pregnant women, the elderly and those suffering from certain diseases.
The department still has nasal vaccinations available, but that virus, which is a live form, is only available to lower-risk people, Martin said.
She said children younger than 5, adults older than 50, and individuals with chronic illnesses such as asthma, emphysema and heart disease cannot use the nasal vaccine. This encompasses the main group that traditionally receives the vaccination each year, she said.
Another reason for the vaccine shortage is that this year the department added children between 6 months and 3 years old to its high-risk group. The department typically vaccinates about 100 children a year on average. This year it has vaccinated at least 400.
“We’ve added so many children — they are more difficult to vaccinate than the elderly,” Martin said. “They bite and kick and yell.”
If people contract the virus and are unable to obtain the vaccine, Martin said one option is to get prescriptions for anti-viral medications from their physicians. Three Columbia pharmacies said orders for the medications have picked up and that they expect demand to increase in the coming months.
Kilgore said the medicines lessen the effects of the virus but don’t cure it.
Dr. Susan Even of the MU Student Health Center said people who haven’t received a flu shot can help one another stay healthy by washing their hands and keeping them away from their mouth and nose in public places.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.