Once again, there's a shortage of flu vaccine. This time, the United States will get only half of its anticipated supply of 100 million doses after British health authorities abruptly shut down an American-owned plant in England. Apparently, the flu vaccine produced there became contaminated with a disease-causing bacteria. For the first time, the government has asked healthy people to delay or go without the shot during the flu season.
This marks the third time in four years that the government has recommended that people at high risk — the very old, the very young and the medically fragile — get their shots first. While few can quarrel with placing those people at the front of the vaccination line, questions linger as to why shortages persist and what can be done about them.
The simple answer - follow the money. Flu vaccine is a low-profit item for drug manufacturers, so few are willing to risk the legal exposure to make so little money. Thus, many manufacturers confine themselves to making a single type of vaccine, which means there is very limited capacity to address anticipated surges in demand.
Some experts say the era of inexpensive flu vaccines is over. People who want protection from influenza will have to pay more for the vaccine to ensure the financial viability of vaccine manufacturing.
Part of the problem is the markedly increased demand for flu vaccine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 10 million to 20 million doses of flu vaccine were used each year from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. As the preventative medicine has become more mainstream, the demand for flu vaccine has risen substantially. Four times as many flu shots were used in recent years compared to 15 years ago, according to the Associated Press. The increase can also be attributed to Medicare's coverage of the shots, which began in 1993.
Considering these trends, it is difficult to understand how the government only seems to react to shortages and has done little to ensure that a sufficient number of manufacturers are making needed vaccines. Given that more than 36,000 people die from complications of the flu each year and more than 114,000 require hospitalization, the government has a compelling public health interest to ensure the flu vaccine is widely available.
One option for this flu season is the nasal vaccine, FluMist, which is available for healthy people ages 5 to 49. However, this vaccine is expensive. It sold for $53 last year, nearly triple the cost of a flu shot. The vaccinemaker has about 1.5 million doses in stock, and government laboratories are investigating whether the dose can be split in two and remain effective in adults.
While vaccine is in short supply, there are several prescription drugs available that can prevent infection by flu viruses or make the illness less severe after infection, however the cost may be prohibitive for some people.
The cheap insurance policy (keeping in mind that one gets what one pays for) is: Wash your hands frequently; get plenty of rest; eat a well-balanced diet and avoid people who are sick with the flu. Lastly, people who contract the flu need to stay home to reduce the chance of infecting others.