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Published: Monday, 10/25/2004

Enough to make you sick

While Americans from 65 to 80-plus wait in line for hours - sometimes in vain - to get flu shots, one group of citizens didn't have to worry about the vaccine shortage.

You know these folks: They serve in the Congress.

Members of the House and Senate got their injections from dwindling supplies even after the shortage was announced on Oct. 5. Maybe that helps explain why there seems to be no real sense of urgency out of Washington.

Perhaps influenza won't strike with any particular fury this year, but the health of millions of elderly and immune-impaired Americans who can't get shots could be at risk even with a relatively mild outbreak this winter. Which brings up the question of why the government allowed what should be routine medical care for many people to rise to the level of a potential public-health catastrophe?

The answer lies in dogged determination by the Bush Administration and its Republican allies in Congress to allow the public health to be held hostage to fickle economic exigencies. Vaccine manufacturers can't make enough profit on the stuff, so the number of suppliers has shrunk from five to just two since 1994.

Here's a better idea: Have the government contract for all of the 90 million doses needed annually and pay American companies a fair price to ensure that there is enough vaccine on hand and that the medication is manufactured in the United States, where quality can be more closely overseen.

Such a plan would lessen the likelihood that the country would be caught short of vital vaccine because of mishaps in a foreign plant, albeit one operated by an American company. It also would allow President Bush to avoid the irony of begging Canada for vaccine after claiming that drugs from our neighbor to the north are unsafe.

It's hard to decide which is more outrageous, that government officials would allow such a shortage to happen or that members of Congress consider themselves a privileged class entitled to health care unavailable to the general population.

As we said, it's almost enough to make you sick.

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