A shot in the arm for healthy kids

Vaccines: Federal officials must intervene to prevent shortages that threaten public health.

March 29, 2002

IN RECENT months, federal health officials have learned a tough lesson in capitalism: The U.S. may be a wealthy world power but it can't guarantee our children a simple immunization.

The suppliers of vaccines for chickenpox, mumps and measles, whooping cough, tetanus, meningitis and other diseases cannot meet the nation's current demand. For a variety of reasons, from lab problems to regulatory actions, they won't recover until year's end.

The shame is that there was no Plan B. It's as if no one imagined a day when vaccines would be unavailable. Some pediatricians and clinics, private and public, have been forced to send children home without their shots, to await backorders. Where possible, the regular schedules for booster shots have been eased.

Many physicians worry that if rationing becomes a regular event, the great strides made in immunizing the masses during the past half-century could be eroded.

It would seem obvious to enlist more drug producers to ease the shortage, but vaccines aren't Viagra. There is little profit, lots of liability, and the biggest customer is the federal government, which buys 52 percent of childhood vaccines, at discount prices. The feds also are the rich uncle who eases suppliers' fear of lawsuits by maintaining a multibillion-dollar trust fund to pay damages when vaccines do harm.

Health officials wisely have not supported calls to launch a new federal agency with its own labs to produce needed vaccines: Government must play a larger role, but we're not yet that desperate.

The proposal now gaining momentum would have the federal government buy and rotate a six-month stockpile of the major vaccines, at an undetermined cost to taxpayers.

Legislation recently introduced by Sen. Bill Frist would provide this needed Band-Aid, but Congress, federal health authorities and drugmakers meanwhile must work harder to solve the vaccine market's basic ailments to protect the public's future health.

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