Dec 11, 2003 (CIDRAP News) – The federal government will buy 250,000 doses of influenza vaccine from Aventis Pasteur to augment the nation's dwindling supply, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson announced today.
The purchase includes 100,000 doses of adult vaccine and 150,000 doses of children's vaccine, Thompson said at a news briefing. The adult vaccine is being shipped to state health departments and should arrive by the end of this week, but the children's vaccine won't be available until January, he said.
The 250,000 doses had been held in reserve by the company, Thompson said. Aventis Pasteur and the other major US supplier, Chiron, said last week that they had shipped all of their doses to medical providers.
Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), acknowledged that the purchase is small compared with the total of 83 million doses of flu vaccine that were made this year. But she said the extra doses can help meet the need for people who are at high risk of flu complications. The CDC recommended today that high-risk groups be first in line for the vaccine doses that remain (see earlier story).
HHS is still looking into the possibility of buying about 500,000 doses that manufacturer Chiron has in the United Kingdom, Gerberding said. The vaccine is licensed in the United States but would require sterility testing and other steps before it could be used here, she said.
From investigating vaccine supplies around the country, it's clear that "there is no big hoard of vaccine anywhere," Gerberding said. Some areas still have some doses, others have run out but have access to more, and still others have run out and can't get any more, she reported.
Flu activity was widespread in 24 states by the end of last week, up from 13 states a week earlier, the CDC reported today in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Cases began appearing in early October, significantly earlier than usual, the report said. And the illness became widespread in Texas and some other states much earlier than usual, Gerberding said. Those factors "caused us to really focus on vaccine coverage," she said. The result was increased demand for vaccine.
An additional concern is that the predominant flu virus this year is A (H3N2), which is typically associated with high levels of severe illness and deaths, according to the MMWR report. In CDC tests so far this season, the most common virus subtype is A/Fujian, a variant of the A/Panama subtype used in the vaccine. The vaccine may not offer full protection against A/Fujian, but it should offer at least some, the CDC has said.
"No evidence exists to indicate that the A/Fujian-like viruses in circulation are more virulent than other influenza A (H3N2) viruses," the MMWR report says.
However, a number of recent deaths of children have been attributed to the flu. The CDC said recent complications in children and adolescents have included encephalopathy, seizures, dehydration with severe hypotension, respiratory failure, and bacterial pneumonia. Two infants and one 16-year-old have died of flu-related pneumonia caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, according to the MMWR article. The vaccination status of most of the children who died has not been determined.
In Texas, 88 pregnant women had laboratory-confirmed flu infections, the CDC reported. All survived. There was one miscarriage, but it was not attributed to the infection.
To help prevent flu from spreading, Thompson and Gerberding urged people to stay home from work and school and not visit nursing homes if they have any flu-like illness. Gerberding said people in high-risk groups should seek medical attention quickly if they experience such an illness, because an antiviral drug may be helpful in the early stages of illness.
Gerberding was asked if people in areas where flu is especially widespread should wear masks. "We are not recommending masks for the general public at this time. There's absolutely no evidence that would be effective in preventing flu," she said.
Dec 12 MMWR update on influenza activity
CDC's flu site