NIH chief wants tougher flu shots tested for elderly

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The infectious disease director of the National Institutes of Health wants to win the war against seasonal flu. That's why he believes higher flu vaccine doses or shots supplemented with immune-boosting compounds should be tested in the elderly.

"My great frustration (is) in trying to shake the cage and say, 'We have not, by any means, optimized how we approach seasonal flu,"' Dr. Anthony Fauci, the NIH's infectious disease chief said in an Associated Press report.

Fauci believes providers and the public need to shift some of their focus from a potential future bird flu or other pandemic to a scourge that happens annually. A mild flu seasons leads to the death of about 36,000 Americans each year, the overwhelming majority of them people 65 or older.

Chiron Corp., the French company that makes much of the U.S. flu vaccine supply, already sells about 20 million enhanced doses of the U.S. shot to other countries, according to reports. Research in Italy has shown the high-powered version brings slightly better flu-defense to seniors.

Researchers at the St. Louis University School of Medicine plan to start studying the effect of higher flu vaccine doses this fall. Previous research has suggested that giving four to six times the normal dose of a flu vaccine component could double seniors' immune responses, according to University of Rochester vaccine specialist Dr. John Treanor in a published report.

Health officials are preparing for flu outbreaks later this year as never before. Nearly 50% more flu vaccine doses (140 million) will be available this year compared to last. Also, officials are recommending for the first time that children 3 to 5 years old (in addition to 6 months to 3 years old) get a flu shot. The recommendation could reach all the way up to 9-year-olds by next year, observers say.