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Published: Thursday, 10/7/2004

Vaccine shortage sparks early hunt for flu shots; area providers field calls from worried patients

BY LUKE SHOCKMAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The flu bug has not bitten yet, but the flu panic has arrived in force.

Spooked by news Tuesday of a nationwide record shortage of flu vaccine, anxious senior citizens and others have begun the hunt for a flu shot because many flu-shot clinics, such as those at hospitals, employers, or grocery stores, could be affected.

"The phones have been ringing off the hook," said Nedra Obreiter, director of the Perrysburg Senior Center. "We hardly put down the phone when it rang again."

The center hosted a previously scheduled flu shot clinic yesterday. By mid-afternoon, more than 250 senior citizens had crammed inside - about triple last year's turnout. Walter Hales and his wife, Gloria, were two of them. The elderly Perrysburg Township couple were not taking any chances.

"We were planning to get them. But when we heard about [the shortage], we said we better not put it off," Mr. Hales said. "I mean, I figured there would be a line, but not like this."

Behind him, people stretched around the entire perimeter of the center, with dozens more sitting on tables waiting patiently for their turn to roll up their sleeves.

The reason? Chiron, one of two main manufacturers of influenza vaccine for the United States, had its British plant shut down by regulators because of safety concerns. That erased half of America's expected 100 million doses of vaccine. As a result, the country now has to get by with 54 million doses from the remaining supplier, Aventis Pasteur.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says only high-risk individuals - not otherwise healthy people - should get a flu shot this year. Those who should get vaccinated include: children 6 months to 23 months, adults 65 and older, those with chronic medical conditions, pregnant women, residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities, children 6 months to 18 years on chronic aspirin therapy, health-care workers involved in direct patient care, and those who have children younger than 6 months.

The guidelines should stretch the limited supply, though there still won't be enough for all high-risk individuals. That concerns many experts, including Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University professor who advises the government on vaccine policy.

"I'm worried about more cases of pneumonia, more hospital admissions, and, yes, more deaths because of the shortage," he said. "I find myself hoping, wishing, and praying for a mild flu season. But there will be a flu season this year, there always is."

Dr. Arnold Monto, a University of Michigan infectious disease expert who also advises the government on vaccine policy, also is apprehensive.

"This is a significant public health challenge," he said.

Dr. Fernando Crotte, a Toledo physician with many elderly patients, already is dealing with the challenge.

"Oh my gosh, we got a lot of phone calls," Dr. Crotte said. "People are very worried."

Dr. Crotte said his office does not have any vaccine available yet, though he hopes some might arrive later this month. As a result, he is telling all his high-risk patients to get a flu shot wherever they can find one, including at senior centers, grocery stores, or other locations.

The CDC is giving the same advice.

Hospitals, depending from whom they ordered vaccine, are struggling.

St. Luke's Hospital in Maumee and Wood County Hospital in Bowling Green are among area hospitals that ordered from Chiron, meaning at the moment they won't be getting the vaccine. Mercy Health Partners ordered half of its vaccine from Chiron, and ProMedica Health System hospitals ordered a portion from Chiron too.

Many area businesses, which normally schedule flu shot clinics for their employees, also are affected. GM Powertrain-Toledo likely will not have any vaccine this year, said Dr. Cheryl Sulisz, medical director for the plant.

Toledo-based Interim Health Care, which administers flu shot clinics at area workplaces, grocery stores, and senior centers, has canceled its flu shot clinics because it ordered from Chiron. Interim normally provides more than 10,000 doses of vaccine.

Also, today's Wood County Health Department's flu-shot clinic in Bowling Green has been canceled.

Dr. Schaffner said he is worried some private organizations that provide flu shots in grocery stores and elsewhere may not prioritize. His colleagues in Nashville have confirmed that some of the companies are ignoring the government's advice on giving shots only to high-risk individuals.

Dr. Monto and Dr. Schaffner said the shortage is wake-up call. Dr. Monto said profit margins are too low for most vaccine manufacturers to produce flu vaccine, and the government may have to subsidize companies to encourage them to produce more and to improve production.

"I wonder if we're like a drunk who has to bottom out before he's ready to accept therapy," Dr. Schaffner said. "But I hope the public and our elected officials realize once again how fragile our vaccine supply is.

"It's not going to get better through our usual American capitalistic system. That's what got us to where we are now."

Contact Luke Shockman at:

lshockman@theblade.com

or 419-724-6084.



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