Demand for flu vaccine escalated Thursday, and doctors' concerns for their high-risk patients grew as the reality of the flu vaccine shortage began to sink in.
Millions of Americans who are over 65 or have chronic health problems might not be able to find a flu shot this year, placing them at risk of serious flu complications, doctors say. Health officials can't predict how severe the flu season will be, but the main flu strain expected this year is known to cause high rates of hospitalization and death, raising fears that this season could be even worse than usual. On average, flu kills 36,000 people a year and hospitalizes 200,000.
On Tuesday, Chiron Corp., which had been expected to ship about 48 million doses from its plant in Liverpool, England, had its license suspended through the flu season by British regulators because of contamination. That announcement cut the U.S. supply by half: Aventis Pasteur expects to produce 55.4 million doses, and MedImmune will make 1.5 million doses of its nasal spray vaccine.
The effects are being felt:
• Maxim Health Systems, a Columbia, Md., company that operates flu clinics in stores across the country, received less than half of the more than 2 million doses it ordered from Aventis. The rest is being reallocated by Aventis, company spokesman Steve Wright said. Maxim has canceled all 7,000 to 10,000 planned workplace flu shot campaigns and will continue to run public clinics in stores as long as supplies last.
• The National Association of County and City Health Officials, NACCHO, reports that except for Los Angeles County, California health agencies ordered from Chiron and have no vaccine. Los Angeles County has received 20,800 doses of the 150,000 that it ordered from Aventis but expects to receive only 45,000.
• NACCHO surveyed 150 local health departments and found that half had no flu vaccine and 85% already had canceled or delayed flu clinics. Those that did receive vaccine got only 25% to 50% of what they ordered.
• InterFit Health Services, one of the largest providers of vaccinations, including through flu clinics at Safeway grocery stores, expects to be out of vaccine by Saturday.
Much of the 30 million doses of Aventis-Pasteur vaccine that have been shipped went to bulk purchasers, including hospitals, health departments and agencies that do mass vaccine clinics in retail stores, said Michael Fleming, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. "Our patients find it hard to understand why Kroger's has flu vaccine and their doctors don't," he said.
"There's a great deal of concern, particularly among our high-risk patients," Fleming said. "They want to know what to do, and it's hard to tell them because we don't know."