The Panic of 2004

Bill Kristol on Fox news was blaming the Obama administration for all the problems with the H1N1 flu vaccine. He seems to have a touch of short-memory syndrome with selective amnesia. There are plenty of people who were affected by recent vaccine shortages. An antiquated system that badly needed a tune-up was driven into the ditch in the Bush administration. President Obama is responsible for fixing it, but he didn’t create the mess.

In 2004 I was responsible for organizing a health fair, which was going to be a flop. The main draw, the flu shot, was not available. Frightened people, elderly and those who had health conditions that would have made the flu very dangerous, were asking if I had any inside information, but there was simply no vaccine. The Chiron Corporation, one of only two manufacturers, had its plant closed down by the FDA. The vials were contaminated, due to sloppy procedures.

Remember that just three years earlier, our nation had survived the attacks of 9/11, and then the still-unexplained anthrax letters. Did public health move to the front burner, as an aspect of national defense? Nope. Under the Bush administration a vaccine program that had worked almost on autopilot, year after year, stalled out.

I knew that by Spring there would be millions of unused doses, manufactured too late to catch the rush of people who wanted it in the Fall. By Winter they would have decided to take their chances, or be too busy, and they’d just wait for next year.

PBS has a good summary of the economics in an article from 2004…

Manufacturers try not to make too much vaccine because what is not used has to be destroyed.
In addition, few companies make vaccines because they are not very profitable, a problem according to many health experts.
“You cannot have a vital function like vaccine production limited to the manufacturing capacity of two companies. It leaves no room for failure,” Dr. Irwin Redlener, associate dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, told the New York Times.
Many experts in the health industry say that government and private companies need to work together to increase vaccine production.

The following year there was more vaccine, but distribution problems persisted. From
‘New Scientist’ 2005…

IN SOME parts of the US there is now a glut of flu vaccine, despite the fact that the country received far less vaccine than it ordered for the winter.
Surpluses have accumulated because Americans have stayed away from vaccination clinics in droves, confused about whether or not they are eligible and alarmed by media reports of people standing in line for hours only to be turned away.

When you consider that each year’s unused vaccine gets tossed out, it’s clear that there is a need for coordination between government and private companies. Public health has to be a priority if affordable vaccine is to reach the people who need it most.

It’s probably top of the list for our new Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin. The Obama administration has not had success in getting H1N1 vaccine distributed in a timely manner, but the system had taken more than a few hits in the eight years previous, and President Bush himself inherited a system that was badly overdue for reform.

So for those with short memories, look up the flu vaccine panic of 2004 for a view of the obstacles to getting an effective system of vaccine manufacture and distribution. This year we are dealing with two different flu strains, two different vaccines, and a public increasingly mistrustful of vaccines in general. There’s a lot of repair to be done.

I’ll be glad to get vaccinated for H1N1 as soon as it becomes available. I had the regular flu shot at work– that was convenient. If you don’t choose to get vaccinated you know what to do. Wash your hands, don’t cough on anyone, and don’t worry too much.

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