Avian flu-panicked public makes regular vaccine scarce

Health funds hope the greater-than-usual response will reduce crowding of hospital internal medicine departments.

flu 88 (photo credit: )
flu 88
(photo credit: )
A month ago, the four health funds wondered what it would do with superfluous influenza vaccine left over at the end of vaccination season at the beginning of December. Now, two of them have halted their flu vaccination program because they have run out, and the other two are limiting their supplies to those at high risk of developing flu complications. Although there is no vaccine to protect against any potential human-to-human-transmitted mutation of avian flu, hysterical publicity about the risks induced many people to go to their health fund in the last two weeks for a shot of ordinary flu vaccine. Since the insurers order their stocks eight months in advance and the vaccine, which costs them NIS 50 each, is usable only during one season, they did not want to overstock it. On the bright side, the health funds hope the greater-than-usual response will reduce crowding of hospital internal medicine departments this winter with patients suffering from pneumonia and other complications of the flu. High-risk patients - those over 65 and anyone with chronic diseases or weak immune systems - get their shot free, while others receive it for about NIS 11. It is also recommended that babies aged six to 23 months be vaccinated. But Clalit Health Services, which has already vaccinated some 522,000 members, said on Wednesday that it had run out of supplies after about a month and could not get more. It completed its vaccination program early. "We are happy that most of the high-risk population went to get vaccinated," said deputy medical director Dr. Giora Verber. The number of flu shots given by Clalit, which is the largest health fund, was 16 percent higher this year than last. Half of all those vaccinated in the past month are 65 or older. The spokesman for Maccabi Health Services, the second-largest insurer, said it has vaccinated 300,000 high-risk members and has none left because of the sudden demand. This was 30,000 more shots than last year. Maccabi vaccinates everyone over 55 who asks for it rather than the minimum age of 65 set by the ministry, the spokesman said. It is very difficult now to find flu vaccine in private pharmacies and impossible to order new supplies from abroad, he added. No health fund vaccinates members of other health funds, as the vaccine is subsidized. Kupat Holim Meuhedet reported that it had ordered 100,000 doses of vaccine - twice the amount of last year. So far, 55,000 have been vaccinated. The third-largest health fund has 62,000 high-risk members, and, of these, 27,000 have gotten their shot. Those who have not are still invited to go to their health fund branches. Kupat Holim Leumit said it ordered 70,000 units - double that of last year - and has 20,000 left for vaccinating members. High-risk individuals will get higher priority. Asked about the shortage of vaccine, the Health Ministry said it was the insurers' responsibility to get an adequate supply. Since the demand for shots next year is likely to be even higher with increased public awareness and the recognition among the needle-shy that it doesn't hurt, the health funds should consider larger supplies for the winter of 2006.