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Slow Production of Flu Vaccine Will Hold Up Distribution

Health: Officials say delay means shots will not be available until mid-November, and shortages are possible. Those at highest risk will be given priority.


Distribution of flu shots in Ventura County will be set back more than a month this season while local health officials brace for a delay and possible shortage in vaccines.

All four manufacturers of this season's flu vaccine have had problems growing one of the three virus strains expected to hit in late December, said Charlis Thompson, a spokeswoman for the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. In addition, two companies slowed production of the vaccine earlier this year after federal Food and Drug Administration officials told them to correct a few manufacturing problems.

Thompson said officials should have a better idea about this year's supply in two to three weeks.

In Ventura County, vaccination campaigns that normally begin in late September or early October won't start this year until mid-November, health officials said.

"A delay of four to six weeks should theoretically still put us on the safe side, unless the flu decides to misbehave and start early," said Dr. Robert Levin, county health officer. "If it's the usual year, we're hopeful the delay won't present any kind of significant problem for Ventura County."

If shortages materialize, the CDC has emphasized giving flu-shot priority to those at highest risk of dying from an influenza infection or developing complications from exposure. Those include adults age 65 and older, people with chronic heart, lung and kidney problems and pregnant women.

Officials have also advised local agencies to develop contingency plans to maximize vaccination of high-risk individuals and health care workers in case there is a reduced supply, Thompson said. Those plans could entail holding off on implementing new federal recommendations to include people age 50 to 64 among those who are at high risk, she said.

County officials said they would focus on those residents in the highest-risk groups and work with local hospitals to prepare for an increase in flu patients.

Flu vaccines are 70% to 90% effective in preventing influenza among healthy adults. About 85 million doses were produced last year nationwide. While the best time to receive a shot is from October to mid-November, any time during flu season is all right.

The county has ordered 21,000 doses of the vaccine from the state to provide for the area's high-risk population, said Paul E. Lorenz, director of county Public Health Services. Shots cost $8, but if a high-risk person cannot afford it the fee is waived, he said.

Vaccines will be administered at private hospitals and through the county's four public health clinics, Lorenz said. The public health department will also supply nursing homes countywide.

The county buys an additional supply of doses each year from pharmaceutical companies. Those shots, normally given to healthy people, come with a $10 fee. However, Lorenz said that supply could be redirected to high-risk patients in the event of a shortage.

"The thing about Ventura County is there's always been a good partnership between organizations to make sure the vaccine gets where it needs to get," Lorenz said. "We'll make it happen."

Another backup plan would be to get the county's pharmacies to build up a good supply of anti-flu drugs and launch an education campaign to focus on treating influenza, Levin said.

Local hospital administrators said they are preparing for a potential onslaught of flu patients.

At Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, only one vaccination clinic is tentatively planned--Nov. 13 in Westlake Village--until more information about vaccine supplies is available, said spokeswoman Kris Carraway-Bowman.

"We are gearing up and we're ready," she said, adding that the hospital had a practice run three years ago when a surprise flu strand hit. "We feel very prepared, and we're confident we can handle anything that comes through, regardless of whether the flu serum is available."

According to the CDC, employers organizing mass vaccination campaigns should delay scheduling clinics until early to mid-November. If there is a shortage in vaccine supply, federal health officials may decide to either cancel those programs or modify them so that the flu shots are focused on workers with high-risk conditions.

County government's annual effort to inoculate its 7,500 employees has been placed on hold, said Marilyn Billimek, program coordinator for the county's communicable disease office.

Other large employers in the county said they, too, are aware of the problems and are planning accordingly.

"We're anticipating getting our supply--just later than usual," said Amgen Inc. spokesman David Kaye. The Thousand Oaks-based biotech company will hold a flu-shot program for its 5,500 local workers in late October or early November.

"The health and safety of our employees is very important to us and the annual vaccination program is popular. We're hopeful we'll be able to meet the usual need this year."

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