- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Federal health officials are considering buying hundreds of thousands of flu vaccine doses from a British company to help ease national shortages resulting from a particularly virulent influenza outbreak.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters at an Atlanta news briefing yesterday that a decision has not been made about the purchases because the CDC is still assessing the amount of vaccine left in this country.

About 83 million doses were distributed for this flu season.

“The main concern that we’re facing at CDC right now is, of course, the gap between the demand for flu vaccine and the context of this outbreak and the supply of the influenza vaccine,” Dr. Gerberding said.

She said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson asked the CDC “to look into not only what we can purchase here in the United States, but also what might be available from a licensed vaccine [provider] from Europe.

“And we are doing that actively today, investigating what’s out there, and possible and available for purchase,” Dr. Gerberding added.

She said the British vaccine is the same formula as the one two firms made for this flu season here. Neither vaccine, however, specifically protects against A/Fujian, the strain of influenza doing most harm.

Both vaccines do protect against a related strain — A/Panama. But Dr. Gerberding said she is not sure how much protection it will provide against the A/Fujian strain. Some say the protection offered could be less than 50 percent.

“Vaccines are not 100 percent effective,” she said. “We won’t be able to say anything about the efficacy of this vaccine until further into the flu season.”

The flu is “widespread” in at least 13 states — Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

“As of the end of last week, there were only two jurisdictions that had not reported any influenza. That was the Washington, D.C., area and the state of Massachusetts,” the director said.

Maryland is identified as one of 16 states having “regional” influenza activity, according to the CDC Web site. Virginia is one of six states with “local” flu activity.

New flu data will be available Friday in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

“We recognize that the heaviest-hit states were mostly in the West, and we are watching to see whether or not some of the Eastern states with large populations will see more widespread infections,” Dr. Gerberding said.

“So the bottom line is that … the flu season has not peaked this year. We are expecting more cases of the flu. And we are watching very carefully to see where it’s progressing and where the most cases are evolving, so that steps can be taken to ensure access to care and hospitalization,” she said.

The two firms that manufactured flu vaccines for the United States this year, Chiron and Aventis Pasteur, announced last week that they have run out and will not be able to provide more.

Last year, manufacturers overproduced vaccine and wound up having to discard 12 million doses, Dr. Gerberding said.

She said about 185 million Americans should be vaccinated against the flu this season. They include all people over age 50; people with chronic conditions; and children between 6 months and 23 months.

Children especially have been hit hard this flu season.

Cindy Parmenter, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Health Department, said yesterday that there have been “eight suspected flu deaths” of children in that state, and a ninth pediatric death is under investigation.

Miss Parmenter said the children who died ranged in age from 14 months to 15 years. Other states where children have died of influenza are Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

Dr. Gerberding said CDC investigators are “looking to find out whether there’s anything about that [Fujian] strain of influenza that [disproportionately] affects children.”

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