Despite delays and price gouging in the distribution of flu vaccines this fall, Maryland health officials said yesterday that they now have enough for all state residents and urged everyone to get the shots.
The extra supply came just in time for the flu season. Yesterday, the state reported the season's first confirmed cases of the virus in a 10-year-old Baltimore girl and a 59-year-old Prince George's County woman, both of whom are in good condition.
"People who may have been discouraged from getting their flu vaccinations earlier this season because of distribution problems, we are now encouraging them to come in and get their shots," Dr. Georges Benjamin, the state's health secretary, said at a news conference.
"We are pushing hard to encourage as many people as possible to get their vaccinations this year," Benjamin said.
Vaccine supply problems
Delays of several weeks in the deliveries of influenza vaccine this fall caused distribution problems or cost overruns for several area health departments, including those in Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard counties.
The local health departments rely on the state to buy flu vaccine. Maryland, in turn, has signed a contract to take part in a Minnesota-based coalition of states that work together to buy vaccine in bulk from manufacturers.
This year, though, the coalition ran into problems. One vaccine maker went out of business, and another experienced problems with its manufacturing process that forced it to ship vaccines late or in small batches.
Local health departments said they were forced to turn to middlemen who charged many times the $23.65 per vial (for ten doses of vaccine) that the agencies expected to pay.
"It's outrageous," said Anne Arundel County's public health officer, Frances B. Phillips. The system "doesn't deliver the vaccine when we need it. ... It has been woefully inadequate."
Anne Arundel went $50,000 over budget and had to cut funding from a prenatal care program to buy enough flu vaccine, at up to $65 per vial, for elderly or chronically ill patients.
Some distributors were demanding up to $150 per vial for the vaccine, Phillips said.
In Harford County, health officer Thomas M. Thomas said his department could not afford to turn to middlemen and was forced to cancel or postpone flu clinics it had scheduled for the first half of October and several more in November.
The department ordered 7,000 doses in April, but by mid-October had received only 700 doses. The delay posed a risk for high-risk patients, especially those with low incomes, who rely on free vaccinations from the county.
Health departments in Baltimore, Baltimore County and Howard County also turned to middlemen to buy vaccines at inflated prices.
Howard County's health officer, Dr. Diane L. Matuszak, said it was difficult getting hands on the vaccine because prices seemed to escalate during the anthrax scare.
"We had to cancel or postpone some of our clinics," Matuszak said. "We had trouble finding the vaccine."
People sick with the flu are just beginning to trickle into area hospitals, with Johns Hopkins Hospital reporting one case so far and Union Memorial and many others reporting none.
Last winter, the state confirmed 295 cases of influenza, an increase of two from the previous year, although the totals for both years were probably much higher because reporting is voluntary, state officials said. Influenza kills about 20,000 people, mostly among the elderly, each year in the United States.
An increasing number of people are demanding the flu vaccine this year because they are worried about anthrax, a potentially deadly bacteria that terrorists sent through the mail to a few news media companies and congressional offices.
Anthrax and influenza have similar symptoms, including coughing, chills and fatigue.
Some people have been asking for the flu vaccine this year because are afraid that they might mistake anthrax for the flu, and thus delay medical attention for anthrax, which can be fatal without prompt administration of antibiotics.
But state health officials say people are mistaken if they think flu vaccinations will help protect them against anthrax. At least two thirds of the viruses that cause flu-like symptoms are not actually influenza. A person who suffers flu-like symptoms after being vaccinated against the flu cannot tell without further tests whether he or she has anthrax, state officials said.
One way to distinguish between anthrax and influenza, Benjamin said, is that anthrax doesn't cause runny noses and sore throats, while flu does.
Benjamin said he is disturbed at the "price gouging" for flu vaccine that has arisen during the anthrax scare, and that the vaccine-buying coalition's contract with manufacturers should be rewritten, so that local health departments that serve the elderly and other fragile populations get the vaccines first.