By LEE BOWMAN
Scripps Howard News Service
November 11, 2005
So says the director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Julie Gerberding, who called a news conference Thursday to reassure frustrated flu-phobics around the country that local vaccine shortages will eventually work themselves out.
For nearly two months, federal officials tracking flu vaccine flowing from four manufacturers have said an adequate supply appeared to be in the pipeline.
Yet state and local health officials and private caregivers around the country have been grumbling much of the fall that they haven't gotten much, if any, of the vaccine they've ordered, prompting clinics to be delayed or canceled in many places and leaving countless would-be patients frustrated and worried.
That includes Gerberding's own mother, who called her daughter this week wondering if she should seek a shot in another state. "I asked her when her doctor thought he'd get the vaccine he ordered, and she said, 'By the end of the month.' I said, 'Good, you'll get it in time.' "
For any particular person, getting a flu shot "in time" means receiving the vaccination two or three weeks before they're exposed to the flu _ the time it takes for immune response to kick in.
"The good news is that this year's flu season is not off to an aggressive start, there's less flu around now than there was at this time last year, so that gives us more time to get the vaccine out,'' Gerberding said. The CDC says there's "sporadic" flu activity in 16 states, with no locations reporting anything close to an outbreak.
Last year's flu season was also relatively mild and late in arriving _ it didn't peak until mid-January in much of the country _ and even with only 61 million doses of vaccine available, several million flu shots were never used.
In September, CDC had estimated that as many as 97 million doses of flu vaccine might be available for this season, but had nonetheless urged that only people at greatest risk from the flu get vaccinated until the last week of October.
Now, Gerberding says the new top number for vaccine supply is about 81 million doses shipped by the end of November, with maybe a little more trickling out in December _ still in time to be useful, she said.
At the manufacturing level, the numbers are again down because Chiron Corp. can't come close to shipping the 26 million doses it had hoped to put on the U.S. market this winter, after shutting down its entire production line due to contamination problems last year. So far, the company has shipped only about 8 million doses, and Gerberding said it's unclear how much more Chiron will contribute.
That means that, like last year, some health providers who ordered through Chiron _ including the CDC itself _ face shortages and delays. At the same time, the private distribution system serving the country has always tended to deliver orders for thousands of doses before filling the requests for a few hundred, Gerberding noted, meaning that smaller providers may be among the last served.
But there are also reports from across the country that demand is up for flu shots this fall, so that many private clinics that did receive vaccine have found themselves swamped, while public health agencies that receive vaccine are trying to make sure that any remaining high-risk patients get the first shots.
In most years only about a third of the 180 million Americans who fall in one or more high-risk categories actually are vaccinated for the flu, which is one reason that vaccine manufacturers have become wary of making too much.
But after a harsh flu season two years ago and a well-publicized vaccine shortage last year, along with a rash of publicity about the threat from an potential outbreak of a new strain of avian flu, "it's not at all surprising if more people are motivated to get vaccinated," Gerberding said, while stressing that there's no evidence the vaccine for this year's seasonal flu would offer any protection during a bird flu outbreak.
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