Half of the nation's projected supply of influenza vaccine will be unavailable this flu season — but early indications are that Utahns who need it the most will be able to get their shots anyway.
"Initial information leads us to believe that Utah will receive enough vaccine to meet the needs of those at greatest risk," state Department of Health spokesman Steve McDonald said Tuesday, following the announcement earlier in the day that British authorities had suspended the license of Chiron Corp., a major supplier of flu vaccine.
Whether there will be enough vaccine available for those not considered "at greatest risk" is not yet clear.
"The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta) has recommended that priority for receiving vaccine be given to groups of individuals at greatest risk for developing complications from influenza," McDonald said. After the state health department "receives and confirms more complete inventory information in the next few days, we will determine how the CDC's prioritization guidelines can best be implemented in Utah." That information will be released on Friday, Oct. 8.
Higher-risk populations include children ages 6 to 23 months, adults 65 and over, people ages 2 to 64 with underlying chronic medical conditions, all women who will be pregnant during the flu season, residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities, and children 6 months to 18 years on chronic aspirin therapy. Other priority groups include health-care workers with direct patient care, and out-of-home caregivers and household contacts of children younger than 6 months.
Eighty percent of the vaccine inventory for Utah's public health system was ordered from the other major supplier, Aventis Pasteur, rather than from Chiron, McDonald said. But the public health system represents only 10 percent of the state's total of flu shots. His department is still gathering information from the private sector, which includes doctors, hospitals, nursing clinics, worksite clinics and pharmacies.
A random check of two flu shot providers reveals the disparity of vaccine orders. Of the 10,000 doses ordered by Davis County's public clinics, 7,000 were scheduled to come from the Chiron, according to Davis County Health Department spokesman Bob Ballew.
Intermountain Health Care, on the other hand, ordered all its vaccines from Aventis.
At the Magna Center for Family Medicine, nurses started providing flu shots on Monday. Three dozen people have gotten the shots in two days, said Dr. Brian Zehnder.
"We ordered our supply a year ago because it was hard to get last year," Zehnder said. "It was being doled out a couple weeks at a time."
In Utah County, "we're seeing a steady flow of seniors and high-risk people coming in now," said Lynn Flinders, Utah County Health Department director of nursing.
Chiron had planned to ship 46 million to 48 million doses to the United States, but that shipment had already been delayed by a contamination problem discovered in August in the English factory where the vaccine is made. At the time, the company said that only 4 million doses were tainted but that the entire supply would be held up and retested.
On Tuesday, however, British authorities suspended Chiron's license for three months because of problems at its vaccine manufacturing plant in Liverpool.
British officials said the action came because of broad concerns about standards at the factory. The company has no obligation to recall or withdraw any vaccine, but none has been released anywhere and none will be this season, Chiron officials said. About a million doses of Chiron's vaccine have already arrived in the United States, but it has not been released for use and will not be in the future.
Less than two weeks ago, top U.S. health officials assured the public that close FDA monitoring of the rest of Chiron's supply suggested it was fine and that there would be plenty of supplies.
Tuesday's news means the United States will face "a significant shortage," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief of the National Institutes of Health infectious disease branch. The influenza chief of the World Health Organization, Dr. Klaus Stohr, said "the implications may be significant."
The timing of the license suspension is particularly worrying because vaccine production goes in cycles. The manufacturing cycle for the Northern Hemisphere vaccine finished in August, and manufacturers are now gearing up to make the shots for the Southern Hemisphere. Vaccine makers do not have a lot of spare stock because they produce on demand.
Last year's flu season started early and with a bang, peaking in November and December in Utah rather than in January and February as it usually does. But it ended up being an average flu season when the last numbers were tallied in March.
Although flu cases are reported all year long, surveillance of flu cases is done between October and March. The state health department's weekly update of flu cases will begin next Wednesday, McDonald said.
Contributing: Associated Press