Late-season flu peak hits vax slackers

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Nearly a quarter of respondents to an MDLinx poll of 2,400 doctors said this flu season is the worst they've seen.

Twenty-three percent of respondents said they're seeing more patients at this point in the flu season than in previous years, and 73% reported a higher volume of flu symptoms in their patients than normal for this point in the season. While supplies of flu vaccines and medicines are holding out so far, the CDC has reported spot shortages in particularly hard-hit parts of the country – a fact reflected in the survey, conducted January 15-19.

“There are spot shortages out there, and it's not going to be as easy to find a vaccine as it was in November,” said a CDC spokesperson, “but more doses are being delivered. It's not unusual for providers to be running low this time of year.”

Forty-three percent of pediatricians reported vaccine shortages in their practice, while 46% said patients had reported being unable to fill prescriptions for antiviral meds – a problem particularly acute in the Northeast.

“Up until now, uptake was about the same or a little lower than last year,” Sanofi Pasteur spokesperson Donna Cary told MM&M last week. Then, as the country went back to work after the holiday break, a surge of cases caused a late run on vaccines, but the manufacturer still has plenty of its various Fluzone-branded formulations on hand. This year's run, said Cary, was around 60 million doses – about the same as last year's, when only 45.5% of Americans over six months of age got vaccinated (a back-of-the-envelope calculation puts that somewhere north of 130 million). For the 2012-2013 season, all manufacturers produced 145 million doses for the US. They've dispensed 129 million to pharmacies. As of November, the CDC said 37% of Americans had been vaccinated. That number's sure to have edged up by now.

“We have a much greater capacity to produce, and we always produce a little bit more than we think is needed,” said Cary, noting that the company is currently ramping up to produce vaccines for the fall.

This year's peak flu season has felt particularly harsh because of a new strain that many people haven't had prior exposure to, and therefore don't have any immunity against. That hasn't been the case for several years.

“People have probably become a little bit complacent, because the predominant virus circulating for the last few years has been that pandemic virus from 2009,” said Cary. “A lot of people over that three-year period were immunized against that strain,” and while this year's vaccines protect against it, many waited until now to get the shot.

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