The grippe unloosed

October 07, 2004

THE BUZZ you hear is not from tardy cicadas. It's the nervous chatter that develops when a nation faces the influenza season with yet another vaccine shortage.

Didn't we just suffer through this last winter? Apparently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the drug manufacturers worked hard to avoid replicating last year's shortage -- this year's will be much worse.

Thanks to problems at a Chiron Corp. factory in Liverpool, England, there will only be about 55 million flu shots available in the United States this year, slightly more than half of what's needed. As a result, the CDC is asking that the vaccine be reserved for those who might get seriously ill from the flu. That includes youngsters 6 months to 23 months old, seniors 65 and older, pregnant women, people with chronic illnesses such as heart or lung disease that put them at high risk of complications, people who care for babies, and health care workers.

The vaccine shortage is not a crisis per se. For the majority of the population, the flu is mostly an ordeal to be suffered. It may mean a week or more of fever, headache, sore throat, stuffy nose and muscle aches. But for the vulnerable, the flu has the potential to be a truly debilitating, perhaps even fatal, affliction.

As for the rest of us, there are alternatives. More than 1 million doses of Flumist spray (which uses a live but weakened virus) will be available this season. The prescription antiviral drug Tamiflu, which can be taken once symptoms appear, will also be in greater supply. And then there are the smart habits of healthy people: Avoid close contact with people who are sick, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough, wash your hands often and generally avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

But none of these actions will cure the underlying ailment -- a fragile vaccine production system. That one factory's quality-control problems could put millions at risk is disconcerting, but that vaccines of all types are so frequently in short supply is absurd. Apparently, the vaccine business is not highly profitable; one would think that more drug companies could be induced (or embarrassed or harassed) into it. What if this were no ordinary flu season and Southeast Asia's avian flu had worsened into a pandemic? Conventional flu treatments (including this vaccine) don't help in a situation like that, but neither government nor the industry is prepared to manufacture an alternative quickly.

We will survive another season of stuffy noses and muscle aches, but it's time Congress and the White House recognized this vulnerability. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson says he needs $100 million to modernize the system. That sounds like a good place to start.

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