Flu shots in great demand in area

NASHUA – Claire Thomas, receptionist at the Health Stop clinic, is happy to talk about how many people are suddenly looking for flu shots – if only they would stop calling long enough to give her a chance.

“We’ve had, and this is no exaggeration, probably 100 phone calls this morning,” she said in a telephone interview Friday, before putting a reporter on hold.

“That was another one,” she said when she came back. “I don’t think it’s going to slow down.”

Thomas isn’t alone in that opinion. News of a flu epidemic in the Western United States that has caused the death of at least six children in Colorado, three in Texas and one each in Oklahoma and New Mexico has led to a rush of people interested in getting vaccinated.

It appears that supplies of the vaccine are holding up well, at least locally.

“Unlike other years, where we had difficulty getting vaccines, this year we’ve had no problem,” said Dr. Donald McDonah of the Family Medical Center in Sky Meadow.

Still, hospitals and clinics are scrambling to keep up with the sudden demand. SJ Family Medical Center in Merrimack, for example, just ordered another 300 doses of the flu vaccine, having used up the supply that usually covers the whole season.

The Nashua Community Health Department has already given out the 1,400 doses that it ordered based on last year’s demand, plus 400 more that it bought, plus 400 more that St. Joseph Hospital donated, plus another 100 for children.

In a typical year, 36,000 Americans die from the influenza virus, but many researchers expect a higher death toll this year.

Nancy Clayman, clinic manager of the Nashua Community Health Department, said she thought interest in the vaccine was being spurred by more than just the recent news reports from western states.

“I think there’s more concern overall with any kind of respiratory illness. SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) may have been the agent that caused people to think in that direction, but we are becoming more aware of how flu can affect the community, how widespread it can be,” said Clayman.

Influenza is a respiratory disease caused by different strains of virus.

Every year, a dominant strain becomes established in the late fall in tropical climates, particularly in China, where large numbers of people and animals live in close proximity and can easily breathe in each other’s disease microbes.

The strain then spreads around the world over the following several months.

The flu season usually stretches from October to May, peaking in December and January, but this year cases were reported in some Western states as early as September.

Most of the outbreak this fall has been a strain called A-Fujian-H3N2, which was not selected for this year’s flu vaccine, which must be produced earlier in the year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But health experts say the strain is closely related to the strain that the vaccine targets, A-Panama-H3N2.

“There is cross-coverage. It does provide protection for other strains,” said McDonah, who noted that he got his vaccination in October, at the very start of flu season.

“It’s not too late to get immunized,” he added.