After weeks of campaigning to limit flu vaccinations to people most in need, the nation's top public-health agency yesterday announced a new problem: Not enough of those urged...

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After weeks of campaigning to limit flu vaccinations to people most in need, the nation’s top public-health agency yesterday announced a new problem: Not enough of those urged to receive the vaccine are trying to find it.

Federal health authorities also are considering broadening the range of people who can receive a flu shot because of an unexpected abundance of unused vaccine.

“We want people in the high-priority group to seek vaccination,” said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Many people believe that no vaccine is available, and that is just not the case.”

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The federal government in October recommended that healthy adults delay or skip a flu shot to save vaccine for the estimated 98 million people who need it most. Public Health — Seattle & King County, in a rare move, went a step further and ordered local health-care providers to give flu shots only to these high-risk patients.

“In the future we might lift our health order and restrictions, but first we want to make sure the people most at risk are served,” spokesman Matias Valenzuela said.

There aren’t enough people in that category, according to two surveys.

Nationwide, a little more than one-third of adults in the high-priority category — including people with chronic health conditions, those 65 or older and health-care workers — said they received the vaccine this year, according to a survey released yesterday. That compares with 54 percent last year.

High-risk group

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 98 million Americans are most susceptible to the flu. They include:

• Adults 65 or older

• People with chronic health conditions

• Health-care workers

• Children ages 6 months to 23 months

Seattle Times staff

Only half of those 65 or older tried to get a flu shot, a separate survey found. Among people with chronic illness — such as heart or lung conditions, diabetes or asthma — only 37 percent tried.

Some, Gerberding suggested, likely were deterred by long lines snaking through supermarkets and other flu-shot clinic locales after the announcement that nearly half the nation’s vaccine supply would be kept off the market because of manufacturing problems at the Chiron production plant in Liverpool, England.

Some elderly patients erroneously believed that the influenza vaccine somehow causes the illness it is designed to prevent, she said. Others assumed they didn’t need the vaccine or that none would be available.

No matter their reason for shunning the shots, the message from health officials was clear. “It’s not too late to get the flu vaccine,” Gerberding said. “And we want people stepping up to the plate.”

The CDC said its Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices will meet today to consider providing the shots to more people.

If the agency expands the list of who should be vaccinated, it would follow moves adopted this week by the California Department of Health Services and Los Angeles County.

Those new guidelines encourage children 6 months to 23 months old to receive the shot, as well as adults 50 or older — compared with the CDC standard of 65 and older.

Any healthy individual between age 2 and 49 can obtain a flu-vaccine nasal spray, available through major pharmacy chains.

Washington state health officials are waiting for the federal committee’s guidance. “There are still plenty of high-priority people in our state who need to be vaccinated,” said Tim Church, spokesman for the state health department.

Projected supplies would permit 65 million people to be vaccinated nationwide — still fewer than what is considered ideal.

While this year’s flu season has started slowly, with only one state, New York, reporting widespread cases, the worst part of the flu season typically is in February.

Nationwide, 41 states have sufficient supplies to vaccinate high-risk groups.

The CDC is encouraging providers to return unused vaccines to state health departments for redistribution.

King County already has redistributed about 9,000 doses from mass clinics, which have seen decreasing demand, to local doctors and health organizations.

While state health officials say they haven’t seen a glut of adult shots, 46,000 doses remain for high-risk children, including those 6 months to 23 months of age or with underlying medical conditions.

The agency will hold onto more than 1 million doses of a foreign vaccine manufactured by Glaxo-

SmithKline — which the government purchased this month on an emergency basis — until all the licensed vaccine has been used up. Although it is used widely around the world and regarded as safe and effective, the Glaxo vaccine has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the United States.

Arnold Monto, a University of Michigan vaccine expert, said he thinks the CDC should enlarge the high-risk group so more people can be vaccinated. But he added: “There was hardly a reason to panic” for those who are not in the high-risk group.

“The [infection] rate is about 10 percent, so nine out of 10 people will not get the virus anyway,” he said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Julia Sommerfeld contributed to this report.