State health officials warn of vaccine shortage

Posted: Monday, August 07, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- State health officials are warning of the likelihood of a flu vaccine shortage this winter and are urging that shots be given only to those at high risk of complications from the flu.

''What they're trying to do is alert people that there might be a problem,'' said Ken Browning, health program manager in the state's epidemiology division. ''We don't know when we're going to get the supply, and we don't know how much we're going to get.''

The state expects to learn the extent of the problem sometime in the next two months.

The shortage stems from the fact that manufacturers have had trouble growing one of the influenza strains used in this year's vaccine. Because different flu strains circle the globe each year, a new flu vaccine must be developed each year.

In addition, the Food and Drug Administration earlier this year ordered two of the nation's four vaccine makers to correct manufacturing problems in their factories, delaying production.

A state health bulletin says there is a ''tremendous likelihood'' Alaska will have a flu vaccine shortage, meaning there may only be enough shots for the people who need them most.

The bulletin urges organizations to delay flu shot campaigns until mid-November and only administer shots to people at high risk for flu complications, such as pneumonia. The vaccines usually arrive in Alaska in early September.

Meanwhile, flu season in the Interior is fast approaching. The virus occurs most frequently during cold weather months when people tend to stay indoors more often and germs are spread more easily.

The state is making plans to reserve hoped-for doses for people who have health conditions that make it harder for them to fight the highly contagious virus, which is characterized by respiratory tract inflammation, fever, chills and muscle pain. Vaccine providers are being urged to work together and do the same, the bulletin said.

People with poor immune systems, those over age 65 and women in advanced stages of pregnancy should get priority for the shot, Browning said. The state is the largest disburser of flu shots in Alaska. The state alone distributes at least 65,000 to 75,000 flu vaccine doses each flu season.

Doses usually arrive between Sept. 1 and Sept. 15 each year, Browning said. This year, however, the state ''hasn't got a clue'' when the vaccine might come, he said.

Workers at the Fairbanks Public Health Center, which normally acquires 4,000 doses from the state supply, are beginning to make plans for handling a shortage, said regional nurse manager Jean Becker.

The public should keep in mind, Becker said, that people who aren't in one of the high-risk groups will fight off the flu just fine.

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