Health-care professionals are divided over whether providing flu shots will ease people's fear of anthrax, which starts with flu-like symptoms.
The rationale for supporting giving the shots is simple: The shots would prevent many people from developing flu-like symptoms and reduce the number of people who fear they have anthrax. Also, those who get the shots and still develop such symptoms might warrant closer medical scrutiny.
Lodi Memorial Hospital staff saw an example of anthrax fear last Saturday when a woman worried she had anthrax visited the hospital's emergency room.
She said she started feeling sick the day after opening a letter, police said.
"Getting flu shots would be a reasonable precaution against possible anthrax hysteria," said Stockton psychologist Tim Miller, who is in favor of providing flu shots.
Other health officials disagree.
On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control issued the following statement: "We do not recommend that influenza vaccination be
considered as a way to avoid confusing influenza disease with suspected anthrax illness."
Dr. Natalie Smith, who is with the immunization branch of the state Department of Health Services, understands the reasoning behind using a flu vaccine for anthrax anxiety, but does not promote its practice.
"We are continuing to assess the situation, but fortunately, the California flu season doesn't really get going until December when there will be a better supply of the vaccine," Smith said.
Therefore, until a larger supply is available, the CDC will recommend that only people in high risk groups receive flu shots.
Those groups include health-care workers, people with chronic medical conditions and senior citizens.
Accommodating a larger population with a limited supply of vaccine could deprive the high risk groups and lead to further hospitalizations and deaths as a result of the flu, the CDC said.
San Joaquin County Health Officer Dr. Karen Furst explained the office's stance.
"There is only so much flu vaccine available - we can't say come one, come all when we only have enough vaccine for the high-risk population," she said.
Furst would not comment on whether she thought that increased flu vaccinations might help defend against anthrax panic.
Although the CDC resists issuing flu shots to the general population, The New York Times reported that New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani urged his city's residents to get the vaccination.
Likewise, the U.S. Postal Service has already started to use flu vaccinations for postal workers, making flu shots available for employees nationwide.
Susie Glover, spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service regional office in Sacramento, agreed that flu shots are a good defense against anthrax anxieties.
"If postal workers get flu symptoms after they've gotten the vaccine, they'll be more likely to go to the doctor with serious concerns instead of just sitting around, thinking it's the flu," Glover said.
Conversely, flu shots could ensure that many postal workers never experience flu-like symptoms, and therefore never fear that they have anthrax.
"This is the first time we've ever done anything like this," Glover said.
Influenza, commonly known as the flu, causes an average of 20,000 deaths and more than 100,000 hospitalizations every year, the CDC said. The influenza vaccine is effective around 70 percent of the time, Furst said.
Some of the medical community has suggested using simple common sense, instead of any vaccine, to curb anthrax anxiety.
"We have to be realistic about anthrax," said Carol Farron, spokeswoman for Lodi Memorial Hospital. "This country has a population of 280 million people and there have been under 100 exposures (to anthrax)."
Miller agreed, despite his advocacy of flu shots.
"The main thing is to keep things in perspective," he said.
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