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RIDING FLU-SHOT EXPRESS
BUSLOADS CROSS BORDER INTO ONTARIO TO GET WHAT THEY CAN'T IN U.S.

Peggy Blumenthal rode two hours by bus in a miserable rain and forked over $40 on Thursday to have a needle plunged into her arm.

She couldn't have been more thankful.

"I feel a lot better now. I hated to leave myself unprotected," said Blumenthal, 56, who traveled from the Rochester suburb of Brighton for a flu shot.

With supplies of the flu vaccine dried up in the United States, busloads of Americans are crossing the border to gird themselves against the potentially dangerous virus this winter.

Dr. John Taliano and his staff have been vaccinating as many as 70 Americans per day at his offices in Niagara Falls and St. Catharines.

Over the last two weeks, Taliano has accepted buses full of people from the Rochester area. The crowds overwhelmed his office so much that Taliano moved the vaccinations Thursday to a banquet facility at Hernder Estate Wines a few miles away from his clinic in St. Catharines.

About 90 people, mostly senior citizens, received flu shots Thursday, paying $20 for the bus ride plus $40 for the vaccination.

Several of them said that it was worth the expense.

"It eases your mind. I don't think you mind paying it," said Jan Dlugosh, 64, of Palmyra, Wayne County.

Dlugosh has a chronic lung disease and was worried that she would be susceptible to the flu bug without a shot.

"I didn't want to wait too long," she said.

Shirley Dzielski of Rochester, walking with a cane because of a recent stroke, said she was fortunate that Canada was allowing the vaccinations.

"I'm 69 years old and have everything under the sun wrong with me, so it's very important," she said.

A new statewide distribution of vaccines announced Thursday by New York State's health commissioner, Dr. Antonia C. Novello, would provide immunizations for 1,910 people in Erie County and 580 in Niagara County.

But the Erie County Health Department plans to use those vaccines for staff at nursing homes and day care centers.

"Our first goal here is to prevent amplification," said Dr. Anthony J. Billittier IV, county health commissioner. "Health care providers have a real potential to get (the flu) and to give it to a lot of other people."

Also on Thursday, the Town of Tonawanda Senior Citizens Center announced that a clinic postponed last Friday would be rescheduled for Dec. 8. Flu shots will be given by appointment only to Erie County residents ages 60 and older.

Canadian physicians are not supposed to sell government-purchased vaccinations to nonresidents, and Taliano stressed that he was using vaccine he purchased from a supplier, through a pharmacy.

The serum costs about $5 per dose, and Taliano said he had ordered as many as 1,000 after receiving many calls in October from Americans concerned about the vaccine shortage in the United States.

The U.S. supply was cut in half when British regulators halted production of the vaccine by Chiron Corp. in Liverpool because of contamination.

Many scheduled offerings of flu shots have been canceled while the country awaits additional vaccine, which takes about four months to produce.

Taliano disputed the notion that he was gouging vulnerable patients.

"People are always suspicious that it's being done for the money," he said. "It is profitable for me, but it is a lot of work. There's no such thing as easy money."

Other Canadian doctors providing flu shots for Americans were also charging about $40.

Taliano said he checked with Canadian public health officials before offering the shots.

"Because medicine is universal, medicine doesn't change across borders," he said. "There's a feeling (Americans) would help us if the shoe were on the other foot."

Some of the bus trips were organized in cooperation with Charlie Bell, a Webster resident who operates Medicine Express, a Web site designed to find less expensive pharmaceutical drugs for U.S. senior citizens.

About 300 people have used buses so far, and an additional 500 people have signed up, said Bell, who offered to organize flu-shot trips to Canada for people from the Buffalo area.

Billittier urged county residents not to panic if they do not yet have a flu shot.

No cases of the virus have been reported in Erie County so far, he said.

e-mail jtokasz@buffnews.com

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