- The Washington Times - Friday, December 5, 2003

The two firms that make flu vaccine for use in the United States announced yesterday they have run out and cannot meet increased demand triggered by concerns that this could be an especially deadly flu season.

The two companies, Chiron and Aventis Pasteur, manufactured between 83 million and 85 million vaccine doses combined, which normally would be enough for a flu season in the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said yesterday the United States has never used more than 80 million doses of vaccine in any flu season.

In a typical year, 70 million to 75 million Americans get a flu shot, the CDC said.

“But because of recent outbreaks, we’ve seen an unprecedented surge of vaccine orders late in the season. As a result, we have shipped all our available supplies,” Aventis spokesman Len Lavenda said.

John Gallagher, spokesman for Chiron in Emeryville, Calif., described a similar situation. He said Chiron had committed its entire production to distributors.

The news that manufacturers are out of flu vaccine comes at a time when a particularly virulent influenza outbreak is spreading across the country. It is also one in which children, not the elderly, seem to be the primary victims.

CDC spokeswoman Rhonda Smith said 79 million doses of flu vaccine were sold in the United States during the previous flu season, but 98 million doses were produced. The unused doses were discarded, therefore dose production was cut down this year to 85 million, she said.

So far, the CDC has classified 10 states as having widespread flu outbreaks, its most severe ranking. The designated states are Texas, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arkansas, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.

As of yesterday, at least six Colorado children had died of influenza. More than 6,300 flu cases had been reported in the state, which is more than the combined total for the two previous flu seasons.

The virus has also been blamed for the deaths of three children in Texas, the first state designated as having widespread viral activity; and one each in Ohio and New Mexico. Officials in Indiana are investigating whether a 10-year-old girl who died Wednesday in an Indianapolis hospital may be that state’s first flu death.

Children are at risk for contracting influenza because their bodies have not previously been exposed to the virus that infects the throat, nose and lungs, according to the CDC. But flu deaths in the age range 6 months to 18 years are uncommon. Most flu deaths involve elderly people in nursing homes, but that has not been the case this year, federal officials said.

In a normal flu season, about 36,000 Americans die. Mr. Gallagher of Chiron said more deaths are expected during the current season, giving estimates of 50,000 or more.

The most harmful strain this year is called A-Fujian H3N, which wasn’t included in this year’s vaccine. But researchers point out that the vaccine does protect against a related flu strain, A-Panama H3N2.

“There’s some cross-protection there,” Mr. Gallagher said.

CDC’s Miss Smith agreed.

“We just don’t know how much,” she said in a telephone interview.

Asked if a shortage of vaccine and its failure to include the flu strain causing most of the sickness this year are factors in the severity of this flu season, Von Roebuck, another CDC spokesman said, “It’s hard to say. It’s something to take a look at.”

Mr. Roebuck said the CDC is not certain there is a flu vaccine shortage. While vaccine makers say they have distributed all the shots they have, he points out there may be vaccine in some places where there is little demand that could be redistributed to regions in need.

“This year, it appears that many more people than in recent years received a flu shot in October and November, and unlike other years, there is a high interest in obtaining flu shots into December,” CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said yesterday.

“The fact that so many Americans have acted on this recommendation to receive a flu shot is encouraging,” Dr. Gerberding added.

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