WHO advocates flu shots to limit SARS false alarms

Sep 3, 2003 (CIDRAP News) – The World Health Organization (WHO) says influenza vaccination may yield an extra benefit this year: limiting the number of false alarms for SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome).

In a statement yesterday, WHO officials recommended influenza shots for those susceptible to serious influenza complications, including pneumonia, and for health workers who care for them. Vulnerable groups include the elderly, immunocompromised people, and those with chronic cardiopulmonary, kidney, or metabolic diseases.

"Such targeted use of influenza vaccine supplies provides the most effective strategy for reducing the health burden of influenza and maximizing the effective use of available vaccine supplies," the agency said. "It can also reduce cases of respiratory disease that could be mistaken for SARS or raise suspicions requiring costly investigations."

SARS could resurface this fall, the WHO statement noted. It continued, "Some health authorities are concerned that cases of influenza and other respiratory diseases, particularly when they occur as clusters in health care facilities, could raise suspicions of SARS, resulting in disruption of health services as well as costly precautionary measures and investigations."

The agency said influenza typically infects 10% to 20% of the population during seasonal epidemics, resulting in 3 million to 5 million severe cases and at least 250,000 to 500,000 deaths annually worldwide.

An estimated 1 billion people are at high risk for severe influenza-related illness, but only about 250 million get an annual flu shot, WHO said. Vaccination coverage of health workers who care for vulnerable people also has remained low in most countries. WHO recently set goals of vaccinating at least 50% of the elderly population by 2006 and 75% by 2010.

Because of SARS-related concerns, health authorities in some countries are giving higher priority to vaccinating high-risk groups, the statement said. In elderly people who live in institutions, flu vaccine reduces the influenza death toll by 80% and prevents 50% to 60% of hospitalizations and pneumonia cases and 30% to 40% of influenza cases, WHO said.

WHO will issue its annual recommendations for the composition of influenza vaccines Oct 6, the statement said.

See also:

WHO statement

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