- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Worried about the H1N1 flu outbreak, my wife and I recently tried to get vaccinations for our daughter. Our quest for the vaccine raises serious local and national concerns.

Post-Sept. 11, 2001, billions of dollars have been spent on emergency preparedness, including massive funding by federal, state and local authorities to prepare for emergency vaccination programs. With all this money spent - what has been accomplished?

In early July 2009, following a March outbreak of a virulent new strain of flu in Mexico, the U.S. government signed almost $1 billion in contracts with four companies to purchase ingredients for H1N1 vaccines. Inexplicably, rather than purchasing some fractional amount of total production, to supply existing government supported clinics, the U.S. government decided to procure 250 million doses and become, for the foreseeable future, America’s sole source of the vaccine.

Ahead of schedule, by late September one supplier, Sanofi Pasteur, delivered its first shipment, out of a total 75 million doses of injectable H1N1 vaccine, to one of the four warehouses established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). At the time, Sanofi said, “HHS asked that the amount distributed and the destination of the shipment not be disclosed.”

While vaccine was sitting in government warehouses in early October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s director stated “vaccine [would be] available as soon as it comes off the production line” and boasted that, “next week, it will become available.” No reason was provided for the government’s decision to hide the amount of vaccine produced and shipped or for the delay in shipping vaccine from the warehouse.

Health care companies use efficient supply chain management techniques, including shipping products directly to doctors, hospitals and clinics. In contrast, by establishing a cumbersome and complex distribution process the government has unnecessarily prolonged the time it takes to get vaccine out to the public and endangered lives.

As of mid-October, according to the CDC, while its distribution centers had received 11.5 million doses only 5.9 million doses had shipped. But that’s only the beginning - each state health department establishes its own widely divergent plan for distributing its allocation of vaccine.

My family’s experience in New Jersey provides an insider’s view of the government’s failure to deliver vaccine to medical providers and citizens. In early October 1,500 doses of the mist form of the vaccine was shipped to New Jersey for the almost 9 million people who live there. My family’s quest for vaccine began with a call to a state health official by my wife, who was advised to call our doctor about the vaccine’s availability.

Our daughter’s pediatrician reported to my wife that she couldn’t dispense vaccine until she “received appropriate training.” A call to the local health department in a nearby town revealed no information on vaccine plans. An official at another county health department revealed no information other than recent meetings had taken place to discuss which providers should receive vaccine shipments. So, as of early October, to my knowledge, no providers in our New Jersey County had vaccine.

Still, we didn’t give up. Another call to the state health department revealed that a hospital in a nearby county had received a shipment of 100 doses of the flu mist. Having received the flu mist, hospital officials then decided not to administer it because doing so might endanger the hospital’s immune-compromised patients.

Instead, hospital officials planned to have the pediatric department provide vaccine at an off-site clinic at some point in the future. My wife pleaded for a “compassionate exception.” The hospital finally agreed to administer a dose to my daughter in a secluded part of the hospital.

My point is: Just about everywhere my family turned for help and answers in obtaining the vaccination, confusion reigned. My sense is that my quest is similar to thousands - perhaps millions - of others. I was one of the lucky ones.

In New Jersey, state health officials report that 18 people have died since June of the swine flu. In New York State at least 75 deaths have been reported since last April. Everyone now agrees, the numbers across the nation - indeed, across the world - will be much worse.

The government’s lack of transparency about the distribution of the vaccine and its inability to provide an orderly process of distribution, especially after years of spending and planning, is outrageous.

More than a month has passed since I began my quest for a vaccination for my daughter. Since then we learned that some of New York’s biggest companies, including Wall Street giants Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Citigroup Inc. received doses of swine flu vaccine for at-risk employees. At the end of October, we also learned that the Pentagon planned to offer the H1N1 vaccinations to detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The outrage continues!

Elliott J. Millenson was founder and chief executive officer of the Johnson & Johnson subsidiary that developed the nation’s first home AIDS test.

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