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Rule allows sale of scarce flu vaccine

The change keeps unused doses from being returned to manufacturers and destroyed.

By WES ALLISON

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 14, 2000


Faced with a stubborn shortage of the flu vaccine, the Florida Department of Health has issued an emergency rule that allows doctors or clinics that have the vaccine to sell it to clinics that need it.

Ordinarily, doctors, clinics and nursing homes must return unused doses of the vaccine to the manufacturer, which destroys them. The rule announced Monday lets them sell it at cost to another facility that needs it.

Typically, about 5 percent of the flu vaccine is wasted each year.

"How much it can help remains to be seen, but we want to leave no stone unturned," said Dr. Landis Crockett, director of disease control for the Florida Department of Health.

"We want to minimize wastage. For someone to send something back to the manufacturer in these conditions would be not in the public interest."

The emergency measure brings Florida in line with a similar order issued last week by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The state also is asking local health departments to match facilities that need the vaccine with ones that have it.

But right now, surplus shots would be a rarity indeed. Throughout Tampa Bay, it's downright difficult to find.

The nation's supply of the flu vaccine, which usually hits the market in October, was delayed after vaccine manufacturers had trouble growing one of the strains of the influenza virus used in this year's cocktail.

Many doctor's offices, clinics, nursing homes and health departments still don't have it, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is asking that it be given first to people at risk of developing complications from the flu -- mainly, those over 65 and those who suffer from chronic health problems.

The shortage has put people such as Francis Miller, 84, on the hunt. His HMO gave him a list of places to get the vaccine, but most didn't have it. He called around to some others without any luck. A neighbor got his vaccine at his doctor's office, but the doctor would only give it to regular patients.

Miller hopes to find the vaccine at a local walk-in clinic later this week.

"I'm just a little bit disturbed," said Miller, who lives in St. Petersburg. "I want to get it as quickly as I can."

More vaccine is expected to begin arriving en masse Dec. 1.

So far, Florida is relatively free from the flu, with sporadic cases of flu-like viruses reported from Escambia County in the Panhandle to Miami-Dade.

Doctors in Pasco County, however, have seen a higher-than-expected number of cases, the state Department of Health reports.

Miller has gotten the shot for the past several years, and he credits the vaccine with improving his health in the winter. "I used to have colds pretty bad, and I've had quite good luck since I have been taking the flu shots," he said.

Some drug and grocery store chains have offered the shot through private suppliers, but those campaigns have been cut short and interrupted by the shortage of vaccine. Some people have been upset that the vaccine was available at a Publix or Winn-Dixie but not yet at their doctor's office.

Crockett said most consumers don't realize there's no central distributor of the flu vaccine.

Public agencies provide some, but the majority is bought and sold on the open market, like any other drug. And normally the system works, he said.

"We're all in the same boat. People are getting their orders filled as they come in, which means some people are getting it, while others are still waiting," said Crockett, whose agency is awaiting 15,000 doses.

"It's a two-edged sword. If indeed these things were to be totally in the public sphere, which I would not necessarily object to, it would require considerably more resources than we are allotting."

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