AN UNCOMMON FLU SEASON

There is much more flu vaccine to go around this year, but manufacturing delays and distribution problems at Chiron, the nation's largest supplier of the shots, led to another round of canceled clinics, long lines and other headaches. Still, it was a far cry from last year, when production at key facilities was halted due to contamination concerns."We were supposed to start our clinics in October,

There is much more flu vaccine to go around this year, but manufacturing delays and distribution problems at Chiron, the nation's largest supplier of the shots, led to another round of canceled clinics, long lines and other headaches. Still, it was a far cry from last year, when production at key facilities was halted due to contamination concerns.

"We were supposed to start our clinics in October, but had to cancel all of them due to these delays," said Alison Bendler, spokeswoman for Chandler, Ariz.-based Bashas'. "However, we found out on Oct. 31 that our supply would be coming in, and we're back on track [with the clinics]."

By contrast, like many other companies Food Lion was in good shape during October, but was forced to temporarily cancel all clinics scheduled after Nov. 6 due to similar supply uncertainties, according to spokesman Jeff Lowrance.

Ironically, supermarkets appeared to fare better as a flu shot destination than many doctor's offices this year. The American Academy of Family Physicians, the country's largest professional group for family doctors, said earlier this month that members with small practices throughout the country were complaining of having no shots at all for their patients due to canceled or non-fulfilled orders.

Additional public concerns in play this year may be exacerbating the overall situation. The specter of the virulent H5N1 strain of the avian flu virus is hanging over everyone's head, and at least some consumers are confusing it with the more common human bug. The two are completely different, but the association is spurring increased demand for flu shots.

Public health officials attended an international gathering earlier this month to discuss the possibility of a worldwide pandemic caused by a mutation of the avian strain. The potential impact -- millions dead and an $800 billion crater in the global economy -- is frightening many to seek any protection they can. Already, at least 60 people have died of the bird flu and experts are warning that a global human flu pandemic is inevitable.