Flu shot shortage trickles down to health departments

By Thomas Wilson
star staff

  The suspension of the manufacturing operation for the influenza vaccine by a British-based pharmaceutical company has left the United States with half the expected vaccine supply this year.
  The shortage prompted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to recommend only the most at-risk groups receive flu vaccinations this year. Physicians' offices and health departments are having to deal with the repercussions.
  "We were caught by surprise on that," said Dr. Kenneth Robinson, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health. "We are following CDC guidelines on vaccine recommendations."
  The CDC received word from the Chiron Corporation last week that none of its influenza vaccine Fluvirin would be available for distribution in the United States for the 2004-05 influenza season. The company reported that the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency of the United Kingdom, where Chiron's Fluvirin vaccine is produced, had suspended the company's license to manufacture Fluvirin vaccine in its Liverpool facility for three months. The suspension effectively erased the Fluvirin vaccine supply for the coming flu season.
  This action will reduce by approximately one half the expected supply of flu vaccine available in the United States for the 2004-05 flu season. Robinson said healthy adults not falling into a priority group would abscond from the vaccine to fill the needs of priority groups.
  The remaining supply of influenza vaccine expected to be available in the United States this season is nearly 54 million doses of Fluzone, an inactivated flu shot manufactured by Aventis Pasteur, Inc. Of these doses, approximately 30 million doses already have been distributed by the manufacturer.
  Robinson came to Elizabethton on Thursday speaking to local government and health officials about state health initiatives. He said the state health departments would have a supply of flu vaccine, but far less than last year.
  "Of the 87 million doses last year we delivered more than 65 million," he said.
  CDC issued a list of priority groups to receive the flu vaccine during this flu season. The following priority groups for vaccination with inactivated influenza vaccine are: All children aged 6-23 months; adults aged 65 years and older; persons aged 2-64 years with underlying chronic medical conditions; all women who will be pregnant during the influenza season; residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities; and health care workers involved in direct patient care as well as out-of-home caregivers and household contacts of children aged 6 months or older.
  Healthy individuals ages 2 to 64 years were recommended not to take the flu vaccine given the short supply and the priority groups identified.
  "I'm going to follow that recommendation by example," said Robinson.
  The CDC recommends persons in priority groups identified above should be encouraged to search locally for vaccine if their regular health care provider does not have vaccine available. Intranasally administered, live, attenuated influenza vaccine, if available, should be encouraged for healthy persons who are aged 5-49 years and are not pregnant, including health care workers (except those who care for severely immunocompromised patients in special care units) and persons caring for children six months of age or older.
  Persons urged to avoid taking flu vaccine before talking with their doctor were those with a severe allergy to hens' eggs or persons who previously had onset of Guillain-Barré syndrome during the 6 weeks after receiving influenza vaccine.
  Complications from influenza result in approximately 36,000 deaths and 114,000 hospitalizations nationwide in an average year, according to the CDC. Flu is the fifth leading cause of death among the elderly. Children under age two are as likely to be hospitalized for flu as people over age 65.
  Over the past decade influenza deaths in Tennessee ranged from a high of 45 in 1998 to seven in 2001.