Some U.S. military commanders in Europe misunderstood a recent policy change for the flu vaccine and thought the change, which extends doses to active-duty forces, meant the vaccine was mandatory for all in uniform, a military medical official said.

It is not.

The misinterpretation could lead to a further shortage in supply, said Phillip Tegtmeier, spokesman for the U.S. Army Europe’s Regional Medical Command.

Last fall, the U.S. government restricted who could receive the vaccine after a key supplier shut down operations because of a contaminated batch. The United States received 61 million doses, shy of the expected 100 million, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The shortage affected the military’s supply of vaccine, and the Pentagon pared down distribution.

This month, the Pentagon loosened the restriction and made it available to all active-duty forces, but did not order troops to get the vaccine.

“The program is voluntary, and those who want the vaccine should come in right away,” Tegtmeier said. “[But] our facilities don’t have enough to make it mandatory for all soldiers. We’re exhausting existing supplies.”

Military officials will not say how many doses of the vaccine are available to troops, citing force protection and security concerns.

Civilians and family members in high-risk categories set by the CDC will continue to receive the vaccine.

Officials have accounted for a forecasted number of deploying forces and have doses reserved for them, Tegtmeier said.

“Sufficient quantities are being set aside to cover the requirements of fulfilling our obligations to administer the vaccine to deployed and deploying soldiers. Those were set aside within the clinics, and clinic commanders know they are to be held for deploying soldiers,” Tegtmeier said.

“We re-examined those supplies and have already made necessary shifts from one clinic to another to ensure those doses are in the deploying soldier’s clinic. Whatever supplies are left in the clinics will now be given on a voluntary basis to active-duty personnel as well as any high-risk beneficiaries who come in,” he said.

Those considered high-risk include children 6 to 23 months and adults 50 years and older; those ages 2 through 49 with chronic medical conditions such as pulmonary and cardiovascular illnesses, sickle cell anemia, or immunosuppression diseases such as HIV; pregnant women; and children 6 months to 18 years on chronic aspirin therapy.

Also included are health-care workers and those who have contact with children younger than 6 months of age.

Doses remaining after deploying troops are vaccinated will be given out on a first-come basis, with priority to active-duty military personnel, Tegtmeier said.

January and February historically are the peak flu season months.

“If there are any qualified beneficiaries out there in high-risk categories who would like to receive the vaccine, they should do so soon before the supply is exhausted by the active-duty personnel who come in voluntarily,” Tegtmeier said.

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