TOPICS > Health

Hurricane Victims Added to Flu Vaccine Priority List

BY Annie Schleicher  September 19, 2005 at 1:00 PM EDT

Center for Disease Control Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said at a new conference in Washington, D.C., Forbes reported, ”If there is any population that deserves first access to the vaccine, it is the people who have already gone through so much difficulty.”

Members of high-risk groups, including people over 65 years, those with compromised immune systems, pregnant women, children between 6 and 23 months and health care workers will be the first to receive this year’s flu vaccine before it is offered to the general public after Oct. 24.

“This gives us a good month to concentrate on the people who need the vaccine the most,” said Gerberding. “This ensures people across our country that, after that point, vaccine will be made available.”

The tiering system with a declared end-date is one of two major changes implemented by the CDC in light of last year’s flu shortage. The other is an increase in U.S. providers of the vaccine.

Last fall, Chiron Corp., a British company, was banned from supplying flu vaccine to the United States after regulators discovered contaminated vaccine at one of its manufacturing plants. The company, one of two U.S. suppliers, was expected to provide almost half of the expected vaccine for the 2004-5 influenza season, which can begin as early as October and run as late as May.

Due to the shortage, health officials restricted flu vaccine to high-priority groups, creating a run on the flu shot in some communities.

Chiron’s Liverpool, England facility, the site of last year’s contamination, passed initial inspections by U.S. regulators last month and can now proceed with the normal process that any manufacturer goes through for final approval, according to CDC spokeswoman Kristine Sheedy. The company anticipates providing between 18 million to 26 million flu shots this year.

But according to Sheedy, even without Chiron, the United States is anticipating over 71 million flu doses for the 2005-6 flu season, up from 61 million doses last year.

The CDC expects four manufacturers for the upcoming flu season, including Chiron.

The Food and Drug Administration approved a new flu shot made in Germany by a subsidiary of GlaxoSmithKline late last month. The company intends to provide 8 million doses of Fluarix, a flu shot for adults 18 years and older.

France-based Sanofi Pasteur is expected to ship 60 million flu shots for young children and adults and MedImmune Inc., of Gaithersburg, Md. is anticipating creating 3 million doses of its nasal-spray flu vaccine, designed for healthy individuals aged 5 to 49 who are not pregnant. The nasal-spray vaccine is not subject to prioritization and is available at any time, according to the CDC.

Getting companies to invest in producing flu vaccine is often difficult due to the necessity of creating a new flu vaccine for each flu season.

This year’s vaccine contains three strains of flu: H1 and H3, which are generally harsher, and one B-stain, according to Gerberding.

Sheedy said some direct flu vaccine providers, such as doctor’s offices and hospitals, already have received their vaccine shipments and others will get theirs over the next few weeks.

Each year, the flu impacts thousands of people. “Influenza is responsible for 200,000 hospitalizations and 36,000 deaths annually in the United States,” said Dr. William Schaffner, from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, Forbes reported.

The elderly are especially susceptible to influenza; more than 90 percent of all flu deaths are people 65 or older.

In an attempt to increase the number of people vaccinated in nursing homes, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is proposing a rule, starting Oct. 1, that all nursing homes offer vaccinations against the flu and bacterial pneumonia.

“Our goal is for 90 percent of nursing home residents to get the flu vaccine,” Mark McClellan, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said, Forbes reported.

The federal government can enforce the rule because nursing homes receive Medicare payments, according to the centers spokeswoman Mary Kahn.