Enough flu vaccines to go around - just not everywhere at once

"Spot shortages" of vaccines reported amid increased demand as CDC declares epidemic

Amid an unusually strong flu season that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called an epidemic, supplies of flu vaccines are running low, and some people hoping to get immunized are having trouble finding them.

In a conference call with reporters Friday, CDC director Tom Frieden said the agency had received reports of "spot shortages" of the flu vaccine in various parts of the country. This was because most of the doses that were produced had already been distributed and the fierceness of the current season — which according to the CDC has resulted in the deaths of about 20 children nationwide — had driven up demand.

"We're hearing of spot shortages of the vaccine, so if you haven't been vaccinated and want to be, better late than never," Frieden said. "But call your provider ahead of time. You may have to check in several places to find the vaccine because most of them —more than 130 million doses that were produced by the vaccine manufacturers this year — have already been given," Frieden said.

Manufacturers have said there is no shortage, according to published reports. According to reports, Sanofi Pasteur has sold out of some versions of their Fluzone vaccine, but others are available for immediate shipment, while MedImmune has tens of thousands of doses of its FluMist nasal spray vaccine available immediately as well.

On Tuesday, FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg wrote in a blog post that of the 135 million vaccines produced, 128 million had been distributed, and the agency was monitoring the situation. In addition, the FDA launched a "Flu Vaccine Finder" at www.flu.gov that allows people to enter a ZIP code and find pharmacy retailers, clinics and other vaccine providers in their area.

In a message sent to investors Friday, Citi analyst Deborah Weinswig noted that flu activity during the week ending Jan. 5 had increased year-over-year for the 14th consecutive time and was up by 1.2% compared with the week before, at 32.8%. The CDC noted that deaths from pneumonia and flu accounted for 7.3% of the total; the epidemic threshold is 7.2%.

But despite assurances of plentiful supplies from many retailers, some areas in the country were still experiencing shortages. According to published reports, CVS and Rite Aid stores in the Boston area had already run out days after mayor Thomas Menino declared a public health emergency for the city. Meanwhile, according to published reports, CVS and Walgreens stores in some areas of Rhode Island were reportedly out of the vaccine, while Rite Aid stores still had them. The supermarket chain Stop & Shop's New England division said Thursday it was still offering vaccinations at all of its in-store pharmacies. Overall, CDC epidemiologist Joseph Bresee said during the conference call, where shortages of the vaccine were occurring wasn't entirely clear, but that customers would likely be able to obtain it if they called different places, while some retailers were shifting supplies from one location to another to meet demand.

"Due to increased demand for flu shots, select locations may currently be experiencing shortages in supply of flu vaccine," Rite Aid spokeswoman Ashley Flower told Drug Store News. "When possible, we’re moving our supply around to meet the demand. And we’re also receiving additional quantities of flu shots in shipments this week. Since this is a very fluid situation, we’re advising customers to call their local Rite Aid to see if the flu shot is available, so that our team can advise them if it is or let them know when their store’s supply will be restocked."

Drug store chains have made a strong push to encourage flu vaccinations in recent years thanks to pharmacists across the country now having the right to administer them, subject to some local regulations. Generally, they have benefited handsomely. Walgreen's had administered 5 million vaccines as of the end of November 2012, Weinswig noted, while CVS' front-end sales were "positively impacted" by flu-related sales in third quarter 2012. Rite Aid had administered 1.8 million flu vaccinations by the time of its Dec. 20, 2012 third quarter earnings call with investors, with plans to administer 2 million through the year. 

According to a report by the U.S. Flu Vaccine Effectiveness Network, the flu vaccine is 62% effective so far this season. "The take-home message is that the flu vaccine is moderately effective this year, and people who are vaccinated have about a 60% lower risk of getting the flu compared to someone who is not vaccinated," said Edward Belongia, a Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation epidemiologist and researcher on the report. "It's a safe vaccine that can help prevent the flu and its complications in both children and adults."


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