WEDNESDAY, Oct. 18, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- U.S. health officials sought on Wednesday to allay concerns that there may be trouble getting flu vaccine to health-care providers in a timely fashion this season.
"We are absolutely not calling this a shortage," Dr. Jeanne Santoli, deputy director of Immunization Services Division at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a teleconference to update the nation on this season's flu vaccine supply.
Santoli's comments followed a statement Monday by the American Academy of Pediatrics that a manufacturer's shipping delay would mean children ages 6 months to 3 years old won't be able to get their flu shots until November and December.
The delay was announced by Sanofi Pasteur, the only maker of injectable flu vaccine for children ages 3 and younger. There will be an adequate amount of the vaccine, but pediatricians will have to wait until November or December to receive the bulk of their supply, the AAP said.
Santoli refused on Wednesday to say there was a delay in distributing the vaccine.
"The definition of delay in terms of distribution is very difficult in that it's a phased process. It can't be completed before the [flu] season starts," she said. "Last year we did characterize distribution as a delay and we think that caused people to step aside and not seek vaccination and that is not in their best interest."
"Given the number of manufacturing plants in the U.S. and the large number of doses currently being produced each year, it isn't possible to complete the production and distribution process prior to the vaccination season," Santoli added. "This means that distribution takes place in a phased fashion over a number of months."
It also means health-care providers face "uncertainty" about when they will receive their full order, she said.
Dr. Anne Francis is former chairwoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' section on administration and practice management, and a pediatrician in Rochester, N.Y. She said, "There's not going to be a shortage if we're talking Jan. 1. The reason this becomes a pediatric problem, but not as much of a problem for adults, is that there is only one vaccine that can be given to very young children. The bottom line is there's enough vaccine but it isn't here yet."
Francis said her practice has received 400 to 500 of the 3,000 doses ordered. Usually by this time, it has half the anticipated supply, she said.
The longer it takes for the vaccine to arrive, she said, the narrower the window for pediatricians to vaccinate their patients, and this year there are more young patients who are recommended to get the shot.
"It becomes a logistical problem at my end," Francis said. "Where I would usually have 12 weeks, I will probably only have six weeks." And those six weeks will be interrupted by Thanksgiving and Christmas, she said.
For the first time, health authorities this year are recommending that children aged 23 months to 5 years old be vaccinated against the flu. Other high-priority groups include children aged 6 to 23 months; anyone 50 or older; people with chronic health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease or HIV; and health-care professionals, caregivers and people who have household contact with individuals at high risk.
Santoli emphasized that U.S. health officials are anticipating as many as 115 million flu-vaccine doses will be given out this year.
According to Santoli, 40 million doses had already been distributed as of the second week of October. By the end of October, a total of 75 million doses will have been distributed. That's 15 million more doses than were shipped out by the end of last October, she said.
"In fact, we've never really used more than 80 to 83 million doses in a season," Santoli said. "So to have 75 million by the end of the first full month of vaccination season to us feels like it's timing that will get the vaccine out there when it's needed."
With this many doses in the pipeline, "we are not making any recommendations about serving one group before others," Santoli said. This is in contrast to last year's policy, where high-risk groups were given priority.
Santoli anticipated that any distribution problems would be addressed by the end of November.
The CDC is asking health-care providers to start vaccinating as soon as they get vaccine supplies and to keep offering inoculations as late as December, January and beyond. "Flu season typically peaks in February or later and even when disease is present in the community, an individual may benefit from vaccination," Santoli said.
For more information on the flu and the flu vaccine, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.