Americans' supply of flu vaccine was cut in half today as Britain abruptly shut down a major supplier just as flu season is about to begin. Facing a record shortage, U.S. health officials scrambled to reserve remaining shots for the elderly and others at highest risk from influenza.
Healthy adults will be asked to delay or skip getting flu shots this year so doctors can give priority to more vulnerable patients, Gregory Poland, M.D., of the Mayo Clinic said after an emergency meeting of the government's vaccine advisers, who unanimously endorsed the voluntary rationing.
"We will need the help of the public, the public health community and the medical community to make sure that the vaccine goes to those who truly need it most," said a statement from the Department of Health and Human Services.
The people most in need of flu vaccine are babies and toddlers ages 6-23 months; the elderly; anyone with chronic conditions such as heart or lung disease; and pregnant women.
Other countries likely will face shortages, too, said Klaus Stohr, a virologist and the World Health Organization's influenza chief.
British regulators suspended the license of Chiron Corp., the world's second-leading flu vaccine supplier, for three months. They cited manufacturing problems at the factory in Liverpool, England, where Chiron makes its leading Fluvirin flu vaccine.
The sanction means more than a delay, Chiron officials said: They will ship no Fluvirin anywhere this year, including the 46 million to 48 million doses originally planned for the U.S.
"This season is gone," said Chiron chief executive Howard Pien.
The rest of the nation's supply, roughly 54 million flu shots, is coming from Aventis Pasteur, the world's leading supplier. Aventis already had said it didn't expect to be able to produce more until at least November, when existing orders are filled. But the CDC has now asked Aventis to try to redistribute its shipments so high-risk patients get their shots first, said CDC chief Julie Gerberding, M.D.
"We'll be working on this fast and furiously," she told lawmakers before racing out of a House hearing to deal with the surprise announcement.
High-risk patients depend on flu shots because the injections are made of killed influenza virus. For other people, there is another option: About 1 million doses of an inhaled flu vaccine, MedImmune Inc.'s FluMist, will be available for healthy 5- to 49-year-olds. It's made from live but weakened influenza virus.
Also under consideration: Whether Aventis' vaccine could be diluted to get two doses out of each original shot. But more research on this year's flu vaccine would be needed.
Chiron's shipments already had been delayed by a contamination problem discovered in August. The company has insisted only 4 million doses were tainted, although it refuses to identify the contaminant.
Less than two weeks ago, top U.S. health officials assured the public that close FDA monitoring of the rest of the supply showed it was fine and there would be no shortage.
British officials didn't explain why they disagreed.
Flu shot campaigns usually start in October, a month before the flu season typically begins in the United States. In an average year, flu kills 36,000 people and hospitalizes another 114,000, mostly the elderly.