more flu news

In other flu news, we’re facing a major flu shot shortage here in the US. There are two major manufacturers of flu vaccine, Aventis Pasteur from France, and Chiron. Chiron is a US company, but they make the flu vaccine in Oxford, England, and they’ve been having trouble with possible contamination at the plant. Last week the UK suspended Chiron’s manufacturing license and banned the export of any more flu vaccine from the country until Chiron could find the source of the problem. This was a surprise to the FDA and it means our supply of flu vaccine has been effectively cut in half from the 100 million doses we need. Aventis can ramp up their production schedule, but it will be November before they can get anything out in bulk. There’s also FluMist, the new nasal spray vaccine from MedImmune, but that only accounts for about a million doses.

I got a flu shot last year and for the first time in many years did not get sick. It could have just been a coincidence; I’ve been living a lot healthier in general and not spending so much time around other sick people. Nonetheless: I tend to be a magnet for germs and I always get some horrible misery at least once a year. Last year: nothing. I was looking forward to the flu shot this year; I was going to get it next tuesday, in fact. But the CDC is saying the remaining flu shots should be reserved for those most at risk for the flu: the very young and very old, people with immune problems, and health care workers. I’m hugely healthy. I can wait.

Of course, this brings up big questions about the FDA’s and CDC’s and our pharmaceutical company’s ability to handle vaccine production in an emergency. We produce the flu shot every year at this time, we know how many doses we are going to need and what is going to be in them. The process is in place and well thought out and now the loss of one company throws it completely into disarray. What happens if we get something like a mutant flu, or SARS, or some other new virus, where we might need 100 million+ doses of a vaccine in a matter of weeks? Its hard to conceive of how that might possibly work. When you add additional complications — there is some confusion over the production of the avian flu vaccine because the procedure for producing it is patented and some companies are unsure of whether they can legally produce it — I figure cynically that at least half of us will be dead before they manage to get anything made.

More Info: CDC Flu vaccination recommendations for 2004 Flu vaccine FAQ Flu Shot Shortage (Forbes) has a good overview of alternatives to the shot, including one of the most basic ways to prevent the flu: frequent handwashing.