"Waiting for Flu Shots" a "Real Reality Show"

Barbara K. Hecht, Ph.D. and Frederick Hecht, M.D.

October 12, 2004 -- It is now October and in all likelihood, the flu season is not far off. Last week the British government shut down a vaccine plant in Liverpool (owned by the American company Chiron) that was scheduled to produce nearly half of the flu vaccine needed in the US. This plant closure will therefore cause a major flu vaccine shortage. There are simply not enough doses of flu vaccine available this year for everyone who should be inoculated.

The FDA claims that they did not know the extent of the production problems at Chiron and that they were completely surprised when the plant was shut down. As of now, it is not clear as to who knew what or when. There seems to be a lot of fingerpointing going on. What is clear is that the other flu vaccine producer (Aventis Pasteur) can only produce 55 million doses this year. This amount of vaccine will be rationed with priority being given to those at high risk, including the elderly and small children.

Firsthand Account: We called our respective physicians to find out about flu shots and were told that they were not expecting to receive any vaccine this year. We were both advised to "get a flu shot whenever we could." We then thought about a supermarket or drug store. Many have programs provided every fall by Maxim Health Systems and we had heard that Maxim had received the Aventis Pasteur flu vaccine.

Since our local supermarket was offering flu shots today from 10 AM to 2 PM, we arrived at the store early (shortly after 9 AM). There was already a very long line of people waiting. As the minutes ticked by, the line got longer and longer, winding in and out of the cash register lanes. At about 9:45 AM, everyone was given a form listing who qualified as "a high-risk individual" because only those people could receive the flu vaccine.

Next, it was announced that only 150 doses of the vaccine were available. The first 150 people in line were assigned numbers while everyone else was asked to leave. We were lucky to be Nos. 112 and 113. Then we waited in line some more -- for about 3 more hours. Some of the people waiting were in wheelchairs, on oxygen, walking with canes, using walkers and for many of them, they simply were not in good enough health to wait in line several hours. Some people actually left the line for medical appointments but, because the wait was so long, they were able to keep their appointments and still get back in line. In the meantime, new people continued to arrive in the hopes of getting their flu shot -- only to be turned away. They were advised to go to another location on another day.

This is a brief description of our experience getting a flu shot in a metropolitan area in Florida. While the situation may not be as bad as this in other parts of the country, we suspect that it is -- or maybe even worse. Getting a flu shot this year is not for sick and the faint-of-heart.


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Last Editorial Review: 10/15/2004