Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

New flu-shot buy amid strong demand

But official says Canada may run out of vaccine

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TORONTO -- Canada has identified an additional half-million flu shots it could purchase to try to meet a soaring late-season demand for the product.

However, the deputy head of the Public Health Agency of Canada admits the country may still run out of vaccine, if people in Central and Eastern Canada follow the lead of Western Canadians and rush to get flu shots.

The unexpected surge has caught health officials across the country off guard, coming at a time when vaccine clinics would normally be winding down. With manufacturers now busy producing flu shots for the upcoming Southern Hemisphere winter, there is limited additional supply to buy.

The original Canadian order, placed in early 2013, was for 10.4 million doses. In many years, a purchase of that size would have left tens and even hundreds of thousands of doses unused. Last year, for example, doctors and clinics in British Columbia returned 90,000 unused doses to the province at the end of the season.

Perplexingly, last year's flu season was harsher than this year's -- or at least from what can be seen to date. But the main strain this year, H1N1, can hit young and middle-aged adults very hard. Reports of people in that demographic being hospitalized, placed in intensive care and occasionally even dying have received heavy media coverage.

'The key here is that this is a normal flu season. This issue is not because of increased disease. This issue is because of increased demand'

-- Dr. Gregory Taylor, Canada's deputy chief public health officer

That has spiked the public's perception of risk, experts suggest. Add to that word of potential vaccine shortages, and Canada is seeing the flu-shot equivalent of a run on the bank.

"The key here is that this is a normal flu season," Dr. Gregory Taylor, Canada's deputy chief public health officer, stressed in an interview Friday.

"This issue is not because of increased disease. This issue is because of increased demand."

Taylor said he and his provincial and territorial counterparts met via a teleconference earlier in the day to bring each other up to speed. "We went through jurisdiction by jurisdiction. Other than some tiny variabilities, this is a normal flu season."

The level of flu activity may be normal, but the demand for flu vaccine is off the charts, at least in some parts of the country.

Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories are nearing the end of their supplies. The latter two jurisdictions said Friday they will reserve the remaining vaccine for people most likely to get seriously ill if they catch the flu.

Saskatchewan is restricting flu vaccinations to children under five, pregnant women and women who have just given birth, while the Northwest Territories will give priority to pregnant women and children under five.

Taylor said Canada's vaccine-supply working group -- a federal, provincial and territorial committee -- is working hard to try to match vaccine need with remaining supply -- a task that sounds about as complex as running air traffic control at a busy international airport after a winter storm.

An extra 245,800 doses of vaccine are being purchased from the suppliers who contract with the federal government to provide it each season, Taylor said.

GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi Pasteur and Novartis supply vaccine for the federal, provincial and territorial flu-vaccine programs. Their contracts stipulate they must hold aside an additional five per cent on top of their total order in case Canada needs to buy more vaccine -- an option being exercised this year. As well, AstraZeneca -- the maker of FluMist, a vaccine puffed into a nostril -- is providing 157,000 doses, Taylor said, adding that figure is part of the 245,800 total.

Some of the additional stock is available now, and more will be delivered in the next few weeks, he said. The provinces and territories agreed Friday to a plan for divvying up the extra product, and Ontario and Quebec have offered to loan vaccine to Saskatchewan until the new purchases can be delivered, he added.

Canada is also exploring the possibility of purchasing another 360,000 doses that were made for other customers but not purchased by them. But Taylor said a decision on whether it will be bought -- or needed -- hasn't been made yet.

The potential mismatch between demand and supply underscores the difficulty public health officials face trying to figure out how much flu vaccine to purchase each year.

 

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 11, 2014 A13

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