Signs of flu vaccine shortage grow

Dec 8, 2003 (CIDRAP News) – Signs of a shortage of influenza vaccine increased over the weekend with the announcement that the two leading manufacturers had shipped all the doses they had made.

Officials of Aventis Pasteur and Chiron said they had shipped out all their available supplies and could not make any more vaccine for this season, according to reports published Dec 6 and 7. The two companies together made about 80 million doses of vaccine, the Associated Press said.

Meanwhile, reports of local or regional shortages increased. Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) officials predicted that the state would run out of vaccine by the end of this week. "There are some clinics that have some vaccine, but in general what we're hearing is that vaccine supplies are very limited, and the clinics that do have them are being inundated with calls," Kris Ehresmann, MDH's immunizations section chief, told CIDRAP News today.

Shortages were reported in parts of Colorado and Nebraska, two of 13 states where flu is widespread. And because of concern about the supply, the Texas Department of Health recommended Dec 5 that medical providers reserve their remaining doses of vaccine for groups at highest risk of severe complications from the flu. Texas is also among the 13 hard-hit states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC is not yet recommending reserving the vaccine for high-risk groups, according to Curtis Allen of the National Immunization Program. "We're recommending that those at high risk, those 50 and older, and especially those 65 and older and with chronic disease, seek out vaccine," he told CIDRAP News today. "We've not made the recommendation to prioritize and go to a tiered approach."

A flu vaccine option that apparently remains available for people in low-risk groups is the new intranasal vaccine, FluMist, made by MedImmune Vaccines and marketed by MedImmune and Wyeth Vaccines. Ehresmann said the CDC told state health officials today that Wyeth had 4.1 million doses of FluMist as of Dec 5.

FluMist, which costs more than conventional flu vaccines, is recommended only for healthy people between the ages of 5 and 49. It uses a live, attenuated (weakened) flu virus, rather than a killed virus, as in the conventional vaccines. The vaccine is sprayed into the nose.

Allen said the CDC today was still trying to assess the status of vaccine supplies. "It seems to be variable around the country," he said. "Many providers seem to have the vaccine, but what we have right now is anecdotal. We're trying to work with the AAP [American Academy of Pediatrics] and AAFP [American Academy of Family Practice] to get a handle on it."

Last week the CDC said it was hoping to find areas that had a surplus of vaccine so that doses could be shared with areas in short supply. But Ehresmann said today that there don't seem to be any surpluses. "Certainly the information we've been getting is that there aren't people who really have vaccine to share," she said.

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