Flu vaccine 'fiasco' leaves US hunting for new supplies

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The Independent US

Health officials across the US were yesterday scrambling to prepare for a massive shortfall in flu vaccines as experts warned the "fiasco" could cause the deaths of many vulnerable people this winter.

Health officials across the US were yesterday scrambling to prepare for a massive shortfall in flu vaccines as experts warned the "fiasco" could cause the deaths of many vulnerable people this winter.

Officials have urged healthy adults and children to forego their flu shots this year to spare supplies for those at risk after a plant in Liverpool that produces the vaccine was shut by British regulators. While the plant, owned by the Chiron Corp, produces a fifth of British vaccines, it provides almost 50 per cent - 46 million doses - of America's supply.

The Centres for Disease Control said that it would start trying to find supplies of the vaccine and match them with places, such as Denver, Colorado, that have been hotspots for the illness. In the meantime, the government said, the remaining 54 million shots should be kept for children aged between six and 23 months, people over the age of 65, anyone living with babies under six months and other high-risk groups. As officials flew to Britain to discuss the suspension of the plant's licence, public health experts said that the crisis had long been forecast and that the government had failed to take measures to prevent it.

Dr Irwin Redlener, the associate dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at New York's Columbia University, told The Independent: "This was a disaster waiting to happen. I don't know [how many additional people die]. It depends on what actually happens, what happens to the supplies and how severe the epidemic is.

"Because this has happened very late, it is almost impossible that we will be able to replenish the supply. Because of that, if there is a serious epidemic we will have a lot of people who are not protected." Officials say that around 36,000 people die annually from flu in the US and that 100,000 more are taken to hospital in winter.

Many observers said the problem in the US was the result of having just two suppliers and leaving the provision of vaccines - an issue of public health - to the market. Vaccine production is not considered very profitable for drug manufacturers and, over the years, more and more companies have stopped making vaccines.

In August 2003, the Institute of Medicine, an independent body that advises the government, said the government should force health insurance companies to pay for the shots. Dr William Schaffner, the chairman of preventative medicine at Vanderbilt School of Medicine and an adviser to the government, told the New York Times: "We have to realise that the era of dirt-cheap vaccines is over. We have to be willing to pay more for the wonderful protection we get from vaccines. When there is more profit, it will be an incentive for companies to enter the market."

Experts said the shortfall has exposed an outdated and clumsy manufacturing system which could be improved by genetically engineering flu strains and brewing vaccines in human and monkey cells instead of using chicken eggs, which is the current practice.

Each February, World Health Organisation (WHO) doctors meet virologists to identify the flu strains they think will hit the following winter. They then brew these flu strains in chicken eggs to create a safe, so-called "seed vaccine". It can take months for the eggs to yield the vaccine and until the vaccine makers receive the seed from the WHO they cannot proceed.

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