October 27, 2004
Common Sense on: Flu Vaccines By Senator Tom HarkinQ: Senator, why do we have a flu vaccine shortage, this year?
A: The Department of Health and Human Services predicted there would be 100 million doses of the flu vaccine available for distribution in the United States this year. Two U.S. companies make the majority of the vaccine destined for use in the United States. The biggest manufacturing plant for one of those two companies is located in Great Britain. The British government unexpectedly suspended the distribution license of one of the companies because of concerns about the quality-control process. This means that only half of the expected supply of the flu vaccine will be available this year for the U.S. market. This means we are in for a very significant shortage.
Q: Why not just make more?
A: The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is exploring this option with the unaffected manufacturer. The problem is that flu vaccine production is very complex and takes a great deal of time. It is unlikely that production can be increased to meet demand before the flu season is over.
Q: If only half of the flu vaccine is available in the U.S., who should be vaccinated?
A: The CDC is advising that the following people be vaccinated:
• All children between the ages of 6 and 23 months of age • All adults 65 years of age or older • Everyone between the ages of 2 and 64 with chronic medical conditions • All women who will be pregnant during the flu season • Nursing home residents • Children on chronic aspirin therapy • Health care workers who give direct patient care • People who are caregivers or who have contact with children less than 6 months old
Clearly, those who are the most at risk should have priority in getting vaccinated. In the U.S., flu leads to 30,000 deaths each year, mostly among the elderly and those with chronic diseases. Therefore, otherwise healthy adults should forgo a flu vaccine this year in order to ensure that all at-risk people are vaccinated.
Q: What is the government doing to ensure that people most at risk are getting the vaccine?
A: The Iowa Department of Public Health is in contact with health departments in all 99 counties, and is coordinating efforts to assess vaccine supplies and distribute available vaccines to the people who need it most. On the national level, my colleagues and I are working with the Department of Health and Human Services to determine how we can avoid this circumstance in the future.