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Flu vaccine shortage hits

Flu vaccinations may not be available this year at Whidbey Community Physicians in Oak Harbor or through clinics sponsored by Island County Health Department.

The unexpected vaccine shortage popped up Tuesday afternoon when word spread that the Chiron corporation won’t be distributing its “Fluvirin” brand vaccine for the 2004-2005 influenza season.

That left Whidbey Community Physicians without a supplier, said Suzanne Henrichsen, a licensed practical nurse at Oak Harbor’s largest medical clinic. “We learned 30 minutes ago from our distributor,” she said, obviously frustrated by the news. “We’ve been told daily for six weeks it’ll be shipped out the first of October,” she added, emphasizing that the vaccine was ordered more than a year ago.

Island County Health Department appears to be in the same situation, according to Shannon McDonnell, public health nurse and immunization coordinator.

“The county’s supply is from Chiron,” McDonnell lamented. “I’m just fit to be tied, I can’t believe it.”

McDonnell said that four flu immunization clinics scheduled for Whidbey Island beginning Oct. 21 are “on hold” until the supply situation is sorted out.

Chiron, a U.S. company that manufactures influenza vaccine in England, posted a notice on its Web site Tuesday saying none of its vaccine will be deployed this year anywhere in the world. “Chiron deeply regrets that we will be unable to meet public health needs this season,” the company stated. The government in England suspended the company’s license to manufacture the flu vaccine due to quality control concerns.

Henrichsen said the Whidbey Community Physicians clinic had order 220 vials of flu vaccine, enough for 2,200 doses. Now it appears they won’t have any vaccine.

McDonnell said the Health Department had 3,000 doses on order.

No information was immediately available Tuesday from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station about its supply of flu vaccine.

The other large flu vaccine manufacturer, a company called Adventus, is still supplying its customers with its “Fluzone” vaccine. One of those customers is Island Drug in Oak Harbor.

If you need a flu shot, the best bet as of Friday was to go to Island Drug in downtown Oak Harbor where a limited supply of vaccine is available.

“I’ve got Fluzone,” said Bill Bulpin, Island Drug pharmacist. He had already heard that Chiron would not be proving vaccine this year, and described the resulting furor as “almost like a panic mode.”

Island Drug has 1,200 doses of flu vaccine available, Bulpin said, but 300 of those had already been reserved. “It’ll be gone by November first,” he projected.

He encourages people who need flu shots to “come in and sign up.” The cost is $20 and the vaccine is covered by Medicare, Medicaid and other insurance.

Bullpin noted that last year there was a vaccine shortage and some suppliers in the Seattle area hiked the price of vaccinations. But he has no intention of going beyond the planned $20 fee. “We won’t do that,” he said. “We’re taking care of our community.”

Henrichsen, the nurse at Whidbey Community Physicians, recommends that patients who usually get their flu shot there find somewhere else. “Go, she said. “Don’t wait for us to have it.”

Several grocery and drug stores in the area traditionally offer flu shots through a contractor. Dorothy Nelson, pharmacist at Market Place Food on Midway, said shots there are scheduled to begin Oct. 14. She didn’t know if the supplier, getaflushot.com, was affected by the Chiron situation.

The Health Department’s McDonnell strongly urges people not to panic. She’s hoping that Adventus can increase its supply of vaccine. “I ordered this morning,” she said Tuesday. “We’re on their waiting list.”

Moreover, she anticipates there will eventually be enough vaccine to at least immunize high risk individuals. The Health Department has already received a supply for children. “We’ve got vaccine for children,” she said.

While the October clinics may have to be postponed, McDonnell said flu season doesn’t arrive until late December or January, and she hopes more vaccine will be available in November.

As the news broke on Tuesday, there was no way to know exactly who will and who will not have flu vaccine in coming weeks.

The first thing to do, McDonnell said, is to check with your family physician. Some of them already have vaccine on hand.

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