updated 10/8/2004 12:16:29 PM ET 2004-10-08T16:16:29

With the nation’s influenza vaccine supply suddenly halved, doctors are expecting a surge of patients seeking prescriptions for medicines that can lessen severity of the flu and even prevent it.

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Roche Group, the maker of Tamiflu, and GlaxoSmithKline PLC, which makes Relenza, say they plan to increase supply of their drugs, but are still working out specifics.

That’s after news Tuesday that about 46 million flu vaccine doses destined for the United States won’t arrive because the manufacturer’s plant has been shut down over contamination problems. Health agencies have since been urging voluntary rationing to make sure vaccines go to the elderly, children, people with respiratory problems and other high-risk patients.

“There’s no doubt that the sales of both of these medicines are going to increase this year,” said Dr. Samuel Weiner, a family physician at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital outpatient center in Voorhees. “Patients in their 40s and 50s with no health problems are going to be coming in and asking for a prescription” to keep on hand.

Several doctors said that’s not a bad idea — if patients call their doctor before filling the prescription and describe their symptoms to make sure they don’t have a different respiratory ailment.

A 10-day preventive dose of Tamiflu would be appropriate for caregivers of both babies and the elderly and many health care and day care workers who have been exposed to someone with influenza, said Dr. Edward Chapnick, director of the infectious diseases division at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Tamiflu costs about $66 for a typical course of treatment of treatment or prevention. Relenza costs about $55. Insurance often covers part of the cost.

Tamiflu sales should be substantially higher, but there will be less increase for Relenza because it comes in a powder inhaled through a small device, rather than a pill like Tamiflu, said Alastair Campbell, pharmaceuticals analyst at Smith Barney in London, which has done business with Roche and owns some of its stock.

Neither drug has been promoted much in recent years, but Campbell expects Roche, a Swiss company with U.S. headquarters in Nutley, N.J., to advertise heavily in any U.S. communities hard hit by the flu.

Tamiflu is approved for both treatment and prevention of influenza, as are two older and cheaper generic drugs, amantadine and rimantadine. The generics only work against Type A flu strains and have more side effects than the brand-name drugs, including toxic reactions and suicide attempts with amantadine and dizziness in elderly people with rimantadine.

Relenza is only approved for flu treatment, but doctors say it also should prevent infection. Tamiflu and Relenza work against Type B as well as Type A, generally the most prevalent strain in this country. All four drugs must be taken within 48 hours of the symptom onset to work — and before symptoms start to prevent the illness.

Doctors who have prescribed the medicines say they are effective.

“A lot of times I’ll call the patients back in three days to see how they’re doing, and they’re feeling markedly better,” Weiner said. Without medication, he said, patients are usually feeling the same, if not worse, by then.

Pneumonia vaccine urged
Dr. Mark Johnson, chairman of family medicine at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark, said he regularly prescribes the generic drugs unless he’s worried about side effects.

“I’m not sure it’s worth the additional cost” for a brand-name drug, said Johnson, who thinks the four drugs’ biggest value this year will be in prevention. He also urged people to get a vaccine against pneumonia, one of the most common and serious flu complications.

Roche last year doubled production of Tamiflu, but spokesman Terry Hurley would not disclose any production figures.

GlaxoSmithKline also declined to discuss how many Relenza doses it makes, but spokeswoman Ramona DuBose said the company is working with federal regulators to see whether it can shift to the United States some of its influenza vaccine Fluarix — sold in more than 70 countries but not approved here.

Some doctors aren’t convinced the medicines are worth their cost.

“You don’t know how well the drug is working. Is (improvement) a result of the drug or your immune system working?” said Dr. Charles Gonzalez, an infectious disease specialist and virologist at New York University School of Medicine.

Still, he said he would give Tamiflu to nursing home patients if another patient or a worker had the flu and patients weren’t vaccinated.

“Often, the best option is to stay in bed, drink plenty of fluids and get some chicken soup,” he said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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