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Flu vaccines being diverted for nation's elderly

JOHNSTON, Iowa — Health officials are scurrying to secure flu vaccines so the elderly, who are most vulnerable to influenza, have first access to shots after the nation's supply was cut in half.

"We're begging, borrowing and stealing from every source we can come up with," said Paula Frank, a clinical consulting nurse for the Bishop Drumm Retirement Center.

The 150 nursing home residents at the continuing care complex owned by Mercy Medical Center are getting flu shots this week after the Walgreens drug store chain diverted a batch of vaccine bound for its stores.

Walgreens decided to divert its supply in response to a request from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which asked healthy adults to forgo flu shots this year to ensure that those most at risk would get them.

"We've tried to follow the CDC guidelines and at the top of their list is people over the age of 65," said Michael Polzon, spokesman for Walgreens. "These retirement homes were also a good match for the amount we had."

The elderly are among those most at risk, said Dr. Patricia Quinlisk, state epidemiologist.

"As you get older, your immune system gets older, too, and you are not able to withstand any kind of disease as you are when you are younger," she said.

Over a five-year period ended in 2003, Iowa tallied 4,526 deaths from flu and pneumonia; of those, 4,235 were 65 and older.

It's a critical concern in a state that ranks fourth in the nation in the percentage of its population 65 and older. According to the 2000 Census, 14.9 percent of Iowans are in that age group.

Anne Langill, 88, a nursing home resident at Bishop Drumm, said she was never concerned she wouldn't get a flu shot.

"I thought that the people who really needed it would get it first," Langill said. "If anyone here got it, then there would have to be special efforts to get it (the vaccine) to us."