Fairness should rule in distribution of flu vaccine in short supply

Posted: Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Alaska health officials, like their counterparts across the nation, suddenly find themselves trying to figure out how best to protect their respective populations against the flu with a sharply -- and unexpectedly -- limited supply of their principal weapon.

And just as suddenly, the issue of who should receive the now-short supply of flu vaccine comes to the foreground in a couple of ways. And in each the word ''fairness'' rises to the top.

First, it's easy to see that people most at risk of serious influenza complications should receive the vaccine. These include, for example, people over age 65, certain people with chronic medical conditions, all children age 6 months to 23 months, and some caregivers. Health officials say people in those and a few other categories should have equal priority in receiving a vaccine.

This is the time for those who can better withstand a bout of the flu to step aside and let those who need it, have it.

Fairness pops up again in the wider issue now confronting state health officials. This involves the possible redistribution of vaccine so that it is available in all major geographic locations, not only the big three of Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau but also the hub communities such as Bethel and Kotzebue from where vaccine is distributed to outlying smaller communities.

Under this idea, however, health officials could be forced into making the difficult decision that one region has had enough vaccine and that some should now go to a region that has had a smaller supply. State health officials will be contacting vaccine providers across the state to determine what stocks they have on hand so that they can act if redistribution is requested.

It's an unsettling prospect, but that's the way it is. The federal government had hoped to have 100 million vaccine doses ready for the coming flu season, but the British government shut off one of the two U.S. suppliers because of contaminated production. That leaves this country with about half what it expected.

Alaska's response to the loss of so much vaccine will be unfolding in the weeks ahead. And that response calls for fairness -- by individuals toward their neighbors and from one region to another. Alaskans recognized this during last year's flu outbreak and, though they may grouse a little, should try to exhibit the trait again this time around.

-- Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

Oct. 8

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