Friday, August 7, 2009

Administration weighs flu vaccine options

The Obama administration is considering an unprecedented fall vaccination campaign that could entail giving Americans three flu shots – one to combat annual seasonal influenza and two targeted at the new swine flu virus spreading across the globe.

If enacted, the multibillion-dollar effort would represent the first time Americans have been asked to get more than one flu vaccine in a year, raising serious challenges concerning production, distribution and the ability to track potentially severe side effects.

Another option, said Dale Morse of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is adding an ingredient to target the new virus into the seasonal flu shot.

Experts inside and outside the administration are evaluating a raft of complicated issues, including who should receive an inoculation against the swine flu and whether private vaccine makers can simultaneously manufacture the standard 180 million doses as well as up to 600 million rounds of a new vaccine.

"We are moving forward with making a vaccine," said Robin Robinson, a director with the Department of Health and Human Services who oversees pandemic response programs. Nothing that a formal decision about the swine flu vaccine has not been made, Robinson said that the government would probably produce two doses per person if the decision is made to go ahead. If the threat diminishes, he said, health officials could decide to produce doses for only a portion of the population.

Vaccine and pandemic experts are working with the administration to determine how to produce, test, track and educate the public about two different influenza vaccines in the same flu season.

"They have never tried this before, and there is going to be a great deal of confusion," said William Schaffner, chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Memories of the nation's earlier experience with a swine flu vaccine present another challenge.

In 1976, hundreds of Americans developed neurological disorders after they were vaccinated for a swine flu strain. The public was asked to receive one of two vaccines developed to combat the strain.

Officials have asked manufacturers to speed production of the seasonal vaccine scheduled for this fall to make way for the possible mass production of a swine flu vaccine.

A decision on whether to produce such a vaccine will have to be made soon, because it typically takes five months to produce a new vaccine and authorities would want it available for the next flu season.

A record-keeping system would also be needed to track which doses patients have received, health experts said.

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