FLU SHOT DELAYS SQUEEZE RETAILERS

ATLANTA -- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention here reported that there is no national flu vaccine shortage expected for this season, but local shortages are being experienced due to a "market distribution problem," according to Julie Gerberding, CDC director.Local shortages -- impacting many supermarkets -- are likely due to the inability of London-based flu vaccine manufacturer Chiron

ATLANTA -- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention here reported that there is no national flu vaccine shortage expected for this season, but local shortages are being experienced due to a "market distribution problem," according to Julie Gerberding, CDC director.

Local shortages -- impacting many supermarkets -- are likely due to the inability of London-based flu vaccine manufacturer Chiron to distribute its vaccine in the expected time frame, she said.

"I don't think there is a shortage, it's just that Chiron was late getting their vaccine to market," said Curtis Hartin, director of pharmacy, Schnuck Markets, St. Louis. "Before the end of the year, all of the doses we talked about at the beginning of the year will probably come to fruition."

Schnucks, one of a number of supermarkets offering flu clinics administered by Maxim Health Systems, Columbia, Md., this season, was forced by Maxim to close a remaining 10 of its 90 clinics. The provider canceled all flu vaccine clinics scheduled for retail locations after Nov. 6 because of an inability to meet the high demand for vaccine this year.

Other affected supermarkets include Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla.; Albertsons, Boise, Idaho; Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass.; and Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y.

"There are a couple of factors contributing to the cancellations," said Steve Wright, Maxim's national director of wellness services. One is that Chiron will only be able to provide the U.S. with about 30% of the vaccine it had originally planned to deliver, he said.

"Chiron is not producing as much vaccine as they had projected at the beginning of this year. They've been one of the most important distributors to [the clinic] sector, so clinicians are delayed," Gerberding said.

Chiron's available vaccine was not approved by the FDA and released until Oct. 18, Wright said. "We did not see the vaccine until Nov. 1, which is quite late since the window for flu shots is usually small and centered in October and November."

Maxim has also seen about a 30% to 40% increase in demand at retail locations compared to the same time frame in 2003, Wright said. (Statistics from 2004 are not comparable because of last year's severe shortage.)

"Our impression is that demand probably has increased, but we don't have the solid data yet," Gerberding said. She cited last year's shortage and the national attention on pandemic influenza as possible drivers for increased early demand for flu vaccine. Wright added the possibility that a shift of vaccine-seeking customers surged to retail locations after being turned away by physicians.

Physicians, in turn, may have been without vaccine due to preferential treatment being given to providers with large orders, such as Maxim, Gerberding said. "It is efficient and important for the distributor to deliver to their large customers first."

With one manufacturer being late delivering vaccine, "that put pressure on their vendors to withhold some vaccine as well," said Hartin, who noted that Schnucks experienced virtually no complaints about its canceled clinics.

About 71 million doses have already been distributed overall and the CDC expects over 81 million doses will be distributed by the end of the season with the possibility of exceeding 83 million doses, the highest amount ever reached in the U.S.

However, "in some communities the specific advice about vaccine availability may differ from what is present in the nation as a whole or even in a neighboring community," Gerberding said.