RICHMOND, Va. -- Influenza vaccinations have become increasingly popular this year, according to some retailers, in part because of the ongoing anthrax scare on the East Coast.
"We're seeing a lot of interest in the flu vaccine -- a lot of it has to do with the heightened awareness regarding bioterrorism," said John Beckner, director of pharmacy and health services, Ukrop's Super Markets here. "There's a perception that if [consumers] get any kind of inoculation, it's a benefit to them."
As of late last week, four people had died of inhalation anthrax, the deadliest form of the infectious disease that has filled the nation's headlines in recent weeks. In total, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, has confirmed 16 cases of anthrax in the past month.
Symptoms of the anthrax disease are similar to the flu and the common cold and include fatigue, fever, body aches and labored breathing. Some government officials have encouraged flu vaccinations this year to prevent false alarms from people who come down with the flu but think they might have contracted anthrax.
Beckner said demand for the $15 shots rose 10% to 20% this year, and he noted that the retailer has started to run short on supply.
"We've used 80% of what has come in the last week of September, and we're hopeful to get more in the next week," he said.
He also attributed the program's demand to increased consumer awareness of its availability at Ukrop's.
Sarah Datz, spokeswoman, Rite Aid, Camp Hill, Pa., said that while there is heightened demand for flu vaccinations, the drug chain does not anticipate that supplies will be depleted prematurely.
"We expect people will want to come out and get more vaccinations, but we don't expect any issue with shortage," said Datz.
Roberta Armstrong, director of pharmacy, Felpausch Pharmacy, a part of Hastings, Mich.-based G&R Felpausch Co., said the anthrax scares have caused consumers to take a closer look at their health and the health of their families.
"The nation is on high alert, and everyone is trying to scrutinize and protect themselves. People are paying more attention to their health, and obtaining a flu shot is a good protective measure against the flu," she said.
In one Battle Creek, Mich. store, she said almost 100 people were waiting in line before a recent four-hour clinic began, and a total of 400 flu shots were administered by the visiting nurses' service in that one day alone. The visiting nurses were prepared for 200 flu shots, Armstrong said.
According to the CDC, 84.6 million doses of flu vaccinations are anticipated to be available this year, an increase from 70.4 million available last year, when there were some distribution delays.
Curtis Allen, spokesman for the CDC, said the federal agency recommends consumers should get their flu shots, and he pointed out that while there have been only a "handful" of anthrax cases, approximately 20,000 people die each year from complications caused by the flu.
"Our recommendation is to get a flu shot to avoid the flu, not to alleviate anthrax fears," he said.
However, one retailer on the West Coast, where no cases of anthrax have been reported, said demand for the vaccinations has not been high.
"A lot less people have been getting them," said Jody Stewart, director of pharmacy, Raley's, West Sacramento, Calif. "We have not had the big panic to get them this year like last year."
She said she connected the long flu clinic lines last year to the vaccination's scarcity, which, according to Stewart, was caused by a problem batch of flu vaccinations and a vaccination supplier closing shop.
"Flu shots were scarce last year, so people were afraid they wouldn't be able to get them. This year, they're available at enough different facilities," Stewart said.
Other retailers have had a spike in their vaccination programs, but were not certain that anthrax anxiety was the cause.
"This year our flu clinics are busy, but we don't know what it's attributed to," said Karen Ramos, spokeswoman, Jewel-Osco, a division of Boise, Idaho-based Albertson's. "If more people get flu shots and avoid more deaths [from the flu], that's a good thing."
Rich Savner, spokesman, Pathmark Stores, Carteret, N.J. agreed.
"[Anthrax] is one reason to see increased demand, but it's not the only one," he said. The importance of flu shots "has been reinforced with this other issue, but the program has grown over the last three years."