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Few shots for Central Coast residents

Health departments and local doctors were caught off guard by a sudden shortage of flu vaccine

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San Luis Obispo County health officials have canceled their countywide Senior Flu Shot Day on Oct. 29 due to a lack of vaccinations.

Debbie Jo Trinidade, the county’s immunization coordinator, said the county has only received a few hundred of the state-allotted 6,960 adult and 1,020 child vaccinations.

And as for the rest, “We don’t know now. We don’t know if [we] will [get] a couple hundred, a couple thousand, or none at all,� she said.

Santa Barbara County is facing a similar shortage. Elliot Schulman, a physician with the county’s health department, said they are asking pharmacists who do have the vaccine to implement screening procedures to conserve vaccinations for at-risk groups.

As of press time, Schulman was uncertain what impact the shortage would have on the county’s flu shot clinics, scheduled to open on Oct. 28.

In Santa Maria, doctor Bill Okerblom ordered about 200 flu vaccinations for his practice nine months ago. They were originally scheduled to arrive the week of Sept. 26, in time for the 2004 flu season.

When the order didn’t arrive on time, he called Henry Schein Pharmaceuticals, the distributor, and was assured the shipment was delayed and would arrive the following week.

But when he heard the news on Oct. 5 that Chiron Corp., a British vaccine maker, had its license suspended by the British government and would not be supplying 46- to 48-million flu vaccines expected in the United States, he knew the situation had changed. Henry Schein ships Chiron-manufactured vaccines.

“I called Schein again, and they told me the vaccines would not be delivered at all this year,� Okerblom said.

Local patients who would normally seek out the vaccine at this time of year — particularly pregnant women, the elderly, and those with chronic health problems — are “scrambling to find places to get it,� he said.

“As long as there’s a lower degree of immunization in this population, there’s a higher probability of an epidemic, unless alternative sources can be found,� he explained.

British regulators ordered the shutdown after discovering contamination at the plant where Chiron manufactures the vaccine. The company was slated to provide about half of the nation’s flu vaccine supply. On Oct. 11, a federal grand jury issued a subpoena seeking documents about the vaccine. According to several media reports, the FDA red-flagged the plant for alleged contamination last year, but stopped short of shutting it down.

Only one other manufacturer, Aventis Pasteur, developed flu vaccine for the United States this year — about 54 million doses, 30 million of which have already shipped. About 1.1 million doses of FluMist, a nasal spray, will also be available nationwide this year.

Though some Central Coast hospitals do not administer flu shots to the general public, Catholic Healthcare West — which owns Santa Maria’s Marian Medical Center, Arroyo Grande Hospital, and San Luis Obispo’s French Hospital — has been in discussions with other local hospitals about how best to handle the situation, said spokeswoman Kelly Plunkett.

“Everyone is trying to prevent a huge scare, since healthy adults don’t need it — just those with chronic disease,� she said. ³

 

Staff Writer Abraham Hyatt can be reached at ahyatt@newtimesslo.com. Andrew Parker writes for New Times’ sister paper, the Santa Maria Sun, and can be reached at aparker@santamariasun.com.

 

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