Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Stop vaccine shortages

While the U.S. government subsidizes everything from sugar to milk in order to stabilize the market for such goods, it has done nothing to prop up the manufacture of flu vaccine to ensure the nation?s supply.

This year, the nation will have only half the number of doses it needs because of bacterial contamination found in batches made by the British company Chiron.

If that doesn?t make you queasy, consider this: Companies that make FluMist, a vaccine that is inhaled instead of injected, manufactured less this year because of poor demand last year.

Why does a relatively small company outside the United States manufacture half the supply of a vaccine for this deadly virus? Because private market forces, not the government, control the supply.

Manufacture of flu vaccine produces small profits and is a risky investment. Flu shots, which provide protection against the year?s primary flu strain, sell for $7 to $10 each. Compare this to a year?s supply of the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor at $1,600.

Add to the pinch the fact that the year?s vaccine supply is good only for a single year. Unused doses are discarded?along with the money it took to create them.

It?s time to change the accounting.

Flu kills an estimated 36,000 people in this country every year. Without adequate vaccine, a bad flu year could sideline between 20 and 30 percent of the work force, taking a huge toll on the economy. A flu pandemic, like the one in 1918 that killed 20 to 40 million people, could wreak havoc.

The potential costs far outweigh any concern about government intervention that could ensure the health of the nation.

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