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This flu vaccine mess could affect Bush’s chance for re-election

…Kerry just needs to put out the facts. You’ve got old people standing in long lines (I went to a local grocery store that had the vaccine and the line snaked all through the aisles; people had been waiting for 3 hours). Needless to say, I didn’t wait, though I am in a high-risk category (insulin-dependent diabetic). NC is supposed to get another 70,000 doses, according to reports last week, and it will be distributed through county health departments. I don’t if it will materialize, but I’ll try again a bit down the road.

Here are some basic stats from the CDC:

Every year in the United States, on average:

* 5% to 20% of the population gets the flu;

* more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications; and

* approximately 36,000 people die from flu.

…The flu spreads in respiratory droplets caused by coughing and sneezing. It usually spreads from person to person, though occasionally a person may become infected by touching something with virus on it and then touching their mouth or nose.

Adults may be able to infect others beginning 1 day before getting symptoms and up to 7 days after getting sick. That means that you can give someone the flu before you know you’re sick as well as while you are sick.

and…On October 5, 2004, CDC was notified by Chiron Corporation that none of its influenza vaccine (Fluvirin®) would be available for distribution in the United States for the 2004–05 influenza season. The company indicated that the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in the United Kingdom, where Chiron’s Fluvirin vaccine is produced, has suspended the company’s license to manufacture Fluvirin vaccine in its Liverpool facility for 3 months, preventing any release of this vaccine for this influenza season. This action will reduce by approximately one half the expected supply of trivalent inactivated vaccine (flu shot) available in the United States for the 2004–05 influenza season.

OK, with that out of the way, the fact of the matter is that national security is at risk because Bush hasn’t planned for the flu, let alone a bioterrorism attack. Eleanor Clift, on, illustrates why and how this is a potent campaign issue.

We are on the brink of a public-health catastrophe three years after 9/11. Health officials already fearful about a possible flu pandemic were meeting in Washington last week when word came about the vaccine shortage. A front-page story in The Washington Post said a local Giant supermarket was like a scene out of Lourdes with elderly people in wheelchairs or with walkers and canes pleading for the vaccine. At the Giant near Leisure World, a retirement community in Maryland, there was a four-hour wait for the limited supply of vaccine. The elderly showed up at 4:30 in the morning with their lawn chairs to get a place in line.

What would this administration do if we were faced with a bio-terrorism attack? If they are unprepared for a predictable event like the annual onset of flu, how can the voters have confidence in the nation’s public-health system? Bush volunteered that he would forego a flu shot this year, and called upon others who are not at high risk to skip their shot, as well. That’s hardly reassuring since if Bush so much as sneezes, the finest doctors will be there to minister to him.

One must note that even the UK, where the bad vaccine was tossed, has replaced its supply for its citizens. And the vaccine is plentiful in Canada, as well.

There is no vaccine shortage in Canada. A health care clinic at Vancouver International Airport is beginning to see a brisk business.

“We had a flu shot clinic yesterday, we actually gave 80 flu shots yesterday,” said Dr. Videsh Kapoor. “Since we sort of heard there is a shortage I anticipate we will see a lot of Americans coming in for flu shots.”

Canadian health officials expect to see a lot of their American neighbors crossing the border for flu shots.

“If there are Americans that are visiting Canada that wish to avail themselves of a flu vaccine while they are here, then I’m sure our health care workers will accommodate them. But we will also try and make sure there is not a shortage for British Columbians,” said British Columbia’s health minister Colin Hansen.

At this point Hansen isn’t worried they’ll run out of vaccine.

In the last presidential debate, President George W. Bush suggested the U.S. might be able to get surplus flu vaccine from Canada. But Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson says that’s unlikely because it’s not licensed for sale in the U.S.

Crap — all a terrorist cell has to do is get infected with the flu, walk across either border into the U.S., and ride urban transport at rush hour in several large cities, and they will be sure to create a pandemic in no time. At the very least the vast numbers of sick people will cause a huge economic hit, as people stay home and emergency rooms are flooded with hundreds of thousands of people. No need for WMD, Shrub…”bring ’em on” alright.


LOCAL UPDATE: My local paper is covering the flu vaccine price gouging. (Herald-Sun). Note that it’s not illegal. Something is definitely wrong with health policy in this country:

The phone at the Duke University procurement office started jangling Oct. 7, only two days after the British government put the clamps on about half this year’s supply of flu vaccine destined for Americans’ arms.

A pharmaceutical distributor had such a deal, just for Duke, if the procurement folks snapped quickly. Ninety 10-dose vials of the hard-to-find vaccine could be had for a mere $455 apiece — $40,950, out the door, a “mere” 650 percent premium above the price Duke paid for a partial delivery a few weeks ago, according to Steve Dedrick, Duke’s director of pharmacy.

But by the time Duke buyers replied to decline the offer, somebody else had already nabbed half the order anyway, said Dedrick. “They said they’d have the remainder sold within the hour. No big deal. This guy didn’t have enough anyway. Our need was so great, it didn’t make a significant difference. Unless we’re in a really acute clinical situation, we generally don’t deal with these folks.”

In a news release issued about the survey, the organization said it found that more than 55 percent of respondents reported they had been contacted “by opportunistic vendors offering to sell flu vaccine at highly inflated prices.”

Of those, more than 80 percent reported being offered the vaccine at more than four times the original market value, and nearly 20 percent had been offered the vaccine at $800 or more per 10-dose vial. The vials frequently sell for less than $70 apiece.

The pharmacists also indicated that even though more than 75 percent of hospitals said they did not have enough flu vaccine available to meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, 84 percent of respondents reported that they did not plan to buy it on the secondary market at inflated prices.

“We are very concerned that the current environment of extremely short supply coupled with high demand will increase the potential for counterfeit vaccine to appear in the nation’s drug supply chain,” said Kasey Thompson, director of the ASHP Practice Standards and Quality Division.

Dedrick said he didn’t believe price gouging was unlawful, because it’s standard business practice. “But when it gets to be two and three and four times the former price, it starts exceeding a reasonable profit. It’s like the gouging on plywood after hurricanes. It’s just taking advantage of people.”

“There’s no specific law against this price gouging that I’m aware of,” said David Work, executive director of the N.C. Board of Pharmacy. “There’s nothing in the pharmacy practice act that speaks specifically to prices. But this is a shameful exploitation of sick people. For some of these people, this will be life and death.”

Work said this year’s flu fiasco pointed to a need for major changes.

“I think this is a good time for our policy-makers in Washington to seriously consider setting up a public agency to manufacture vaccine,” he said, “because the pharmaceutical manufacturers figure they can’t make as much profit off vaccines as off other products.”

…”Some things are too important to leave to private enterprise,” Work concluded. “This may be one of them. Actually, I think the manufacturers wouldn’t mind being out of the business, but the thought of a public institution getting involved would make them awfully nervous. But that’s okay. Let them be nervous. Back when I started in this business, they referred to this as the ethical pharmaceuticals business. But you don’t hear that reference much anymore.

But, of course, Bush doesn’t believe in government-run health care. He’d rather see thousands die so that Big Pharma can ensure a profit.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding