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Few flu vaccine shortages in Europe

Ireland — like the United States — is struggling to find enough flu vaccine following the shutdown of a British factory, but other European countries mostly have no shortages, an Associated Press survey found Thursday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ireland — like the United States — is struggling to find enough flu vaccine following the shutdown of a British factory, but other European countries mostly have no shortages, an Associated Press survey found Thursday.

Northern Ireland — which usually orders 80 percent of its doses from U.S. drug maker Chiron Corp.’s factory in Liverpool — and the Republic of Ireland acknowledged difficulties obtaining enough doses of the vaccine as the flu season starts in the Northern Hemisphere.

British regulators announced Oct. 5 they had shut down the Chiron production facility in Liverpool because of contamination. That cut the U.S. vaccine supply — usually 100 million doses — almost in half.

The shortage has become an issue in the forthcoming presidential election. Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, released an advertisement saying President Bush’s health care advice boils down to “don’t get sick” and contending the issue is an example of Bush’s incompetence.

Administration officials promised an additional 2.6 million doses of vaccine will be available in January.

Fewer problems in Europe
Fewer problems have been reported in Europe, however. There are sufficient stocks in Spain, Sweden, Austria, Croatia and the Czech Republic, and in the rest of Britain, national authorities said. Italy also has enough, although suppliers were forced to reduce their prices by 40 percent after consumer groups complained the shots were too expensive.

Daniel Haeuptli, co-head of vaccine and blood development at the Swiss Agency for Therapeutic Products, said his country had all the 1.3 million doses it needed.

The Paul Ehrlich Institute, Germany’s federal agency for vaccines, said it did not look like there would be any trouble in that country.

This year has been “a mild year for the flu,” spokeswoman Susanne Stoecker said. “But it’s hard to tell ahead of time how much vaccine should be made available.”

She said about 20 million doses of vaccine were available in Germany, which has a population of about 80 million. Typically, about 20 percent of Germans get flu shots.

“Based on our experience, we see what was needed last year and then produce more, just to be sure,” Stoecker said.

Ireland hit by Chiron shutdown
Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have had more trouble.

“It is not our role to secure supplies, but we had to step in,” said Dr. Lorraine Doherty, a senior medical adviser at the Northern Ireland health department.

The department negotiated bulk purchases with other suppliers following the Chiron shutdown, but it was still short of doses. Still, it insisted that every person who needed a shot would receive it.

South of the border, the Republic of Ireland found it had just 200,000 doses by the end of September while it required at least 530,000 for the flu season.

On Oct. 5, the health department announced it had secured a total of 598,000 doses — but the orders from other suppliers are coming in stages running into early November. So Ireland’s usual TV and newspaper ad campaign in October urging people in high-risk groups to get their shots was delayed, and many doctors and clinics are complaining that their initial supplies have run out.

The U.N. health agency said governments need to take a close look at the way they ensure their stocks of flu vaccines if they are to avoid shortages in the future.

Multiple suppliers key to avoiding shortages
Maria Cheng, spokeswoman for the World Health Organization, noted that the United States has been relying on two suppliers “and one supplier had a problem. The United Kingdom has four or five suppliers.”

“One of the problems that the Chiron problem raised was the lack of capacity that exists in vaccine production,” Cheng told the AP.

Cheng said the composition of the flu vaccine changes every year in response to scientists’ prediction of which strains will be most widespread. So there is no incentive for companies to produce more vaccine than the orders they already have.

“It is an expensive process and there is no capability to increase the supply,” she said.

“We need a concerted effort between vaccine companies and licensing agencies and national governments. They could do it, but it would be technologically expensive, with extra factories just in case.”

However, Cheng stressed, WHO does not insist that everybody should receive a flu vaccine. While many adults expect to receive a shot every year, the agency only recommends them for children under 2, adults over 64 and people with compromised immune systems or breathing difficulties.

“Having the flu shot is not a guarantee that you aren’t going to get the flu anyway,” she said. “You may catch some other strain” that isn’t included in the year’s dose.