The Great Flu Vaccine Shortage of 2009 – Why Flu Shots are in Short Supply

At this time of year in my not-too-distant memory, it seems I was tripping over flu vaccines.

At work, at my doctor, at our pediatrician, at the drugstore. Flu shots were everywhere. But in 2009, the story is much different. The doctor has them – and then they don’t. The drugstore has them – for kids over age 4 only, but only 10 doses, so you must come NOW.

I was starting to wonder if it was just me, wondering if the forces in the universe were conspiring to keep my family and me unprotected this season. After all, when I call the doctor’s office, they act like I’m crazy to be able to expect to schedule a flu shot anytime within the next six weeks. Or that changing my appointment for shot (once I got an appointment) from the scheduled “flu clinic” date would force us to relenquish the vaccine to someone on their wait list – who cares that it’s school picture day and my kids might miss their class picture time.

So what is up with the Great Flu Vaccine Shortage of 2009? I decided to find out. I interviewed Mike Barsky, pharmacist and owner of TexasStar Pharmacy in Plano, plus jumped on my handy dandy computer (Google Is my friend) and now have the scoop for ally you MOL-ly’s.

All shortages are an issue of supply or demand – or, in this case, both. (Dr. Fain, my microeconomics teacher from Oklahoma State, would be so proud of that his ever-present equilibrium chart is floating in my head right now.) In addition, when you throw a convuluted distribution system into the mix, it can exacerbate the problem with supply. So let’s tackle the supply side first:

Supply

  • Two vaccines this year instead of one – Most years, manufacturers have only had to produce the flu vaccine for whatever the seasonal flu strain was for a given year. But this year, they have to produce as much (if not more) swine flu vaccine in addition to the seasonal vaccines. That’s at least doubling their required output.
  • Manufacturers can’t produce far ahead to fill expected demand because they have to wait to see what exact strain the flu is evolving toward to develop the right vaccine. They don’t know this until just before the real flu season hits.
  • Swine flu vaccines are being prioritized over seasonal flu vaccine . . . BUT . . .
  • The swine flu vaccine is taking longer to produce than they expected. My research found two reasons for this: 1) According to Mike Barsky, the swine flu virus takes longer to grow in the eggs through which they produce the vaccine. (I’m skipping all the techno-lingo he used because it went over my head!) 2) Additionally, according to an NPR article on the Swine Flu Vaccine Shortage, the yield of the cultures is turning out to be less than the manufacturers thought it would be – so each culture cultivated is producing less vaccine than originally estimated.

Distribution Bottlenecks

Throw a large federal government agency (in this case, the Centers for Disease Control), reams of of regulations for distributing controlled substances, private corporations, and lots of state and local governments and you get distribution issues. I don’t understand it all….but when it ends up that the Tom Thumb Pharmacy has 1000 shots of the seasonal flu vaccine that can only be given to people over age 14 yrs old, but has no vaccines for children under that age, I know something is messed up.

Demand

Never before have I heard so much news coverage on lines at flu vaccine clinics, or heard my doctor talk about a “wait list” for their appointment-based flu clinic. Increased media coverage of the swine flu (which has a lower death rate than the seasonal flu, although you’d never know it from the media) has led more people than ever to get vaccinated (or want to get vaccinated). We are hearing about people waiting several hours for their chance to get a flu shot – and few abandoning their spot in line.

So what to do now?

By the time your family can get flu vaccines, given the short supply, you may wonder if you should bother with them at all. Are they really worth the hassle? Will the flu “wave” be past us before you can even get protected?

According to Barsky, and to many other medical professionals, the answer is: Get the vaccine, even it seems “late.” The swine flu pandemic of the 1970’s followed a pattern of multiple waves, and many expect there to be an additional wave for this swine flu in late December or January. And seasonal flu can strike anytime as well. So, do yourself (and your kids) a favor and get the shot. Just make sure to call ahead or make an appointment to know if they’ve got it on hand!

Good luck to you and your family on staying healthy this fall / winter!

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