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Delays Plague Flu Vaccine Supply

Long delays in distributing flu vaccine are frustrating public health departments and doctors’ offices despite expectations of ample supplies this fall.

Public health clinics in some regions report they are missing nearly half the vaccines they ordered from manufacturers. Delays are causing some people to go without vaccination and have officials worried those people may not return for vaccination when supplies improve.

U.S. Now Recommends Flu Shots for All

“I’m told we’re up to about 40 percent to 45 percent of what we’ve ordered we’ve received,” says Don Williamson, MD, state health officer for Alabama. Williamson says there are “isolated pockets of shortage” in state and local health departments in other parts of the country.

Pubic health officials touted a record 110 to 115 million flu vaccine doses scheduled for production this year. That production was expected to bring relief from the shortages of the past two years, caused by safety problems at vaccine plants overseas as well as distribution delays.

CDC Director Julie Gerberding, MD, cites distribution delays as the reason some clinics and small doctor offices have not received their promised vaccine supplies, even while large chain retailers enjoy full supplies.

“There is a shortage right now, but it’s probably better to characterize it as a delay,” Gerberding told reporters Monday. “There are people and places who don’t have what they need, there’s no doubt about it.”

L.J. Tan, MD, who represents the American Medical Association on the National Influenza Vaccine Summit, says up to 40 percent of primary care doctors in small or solo practices have not received their full vaccine orders.

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An Adjustment

The delays have forced public health officials to readjust their usual push urging the public to get vaccinated as early possible in the flu season. Gerberding says the CDC will hold a national flu vaccination week between Nov. 27 and Dec. 4 to encourage patients and doctors to continue vaccinating later in the season, when officials predict supplies will improve.

“There is a very important adjustment that needs to be made in the medical community. This isn’t ‘do it now or it’s too late.’ It’s ‘do it as soon as you can in your community, and it’s never too late,’” she says.

The CDC recommends annual flu vaccines for the following groups:

--Kids aged 6 months to 5 years

--Pregnant women

--People 50 and older

--People of any age with certain chronic medical conditions

--People living in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities

--Health care workers

--People who live with those at high risk for flu complications

--Household contacts and caregivers of babies under 6 months

In all, more than 200 million Americans are recommended to receive flu shots.

The disease kills an average of 36,000 Americans a year and hospitalizes about 200,000.

Officials acknowledge that patients who seek a flu shot may come back a second time to get it. But delays like this year’s pose a particular problem for children under 8 years old who are receiving the vaccine for the first time; they are supposed to receive two separate doses several weeks apart.

Vaccination Delays Put Many Children at Risk

Officials: Don’t Give Up

Lack of vaccine availability makes it less likely busy pediatricians’ offices will be able to accommodate patients, or that busy parents will bring their children to clinics if supplies are uncertain. For now, officials stress that flu season often does not peak until January or later, and that patients who don’t find the vaccine at their doctor’s office should keep trying.

“We don’t want people to give up,” Gerberding says.

By Todd Zwillich

SOURCES: Julie Gerberding, MD, director, CDC. Don Williams, state health officer, Alabama. L.J. Tan, MD, AMA representative, National Influenza Vaccine Summit.