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H1N1 vaccine shortage looms

Province pleads for low-priority cases to wait

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Manitoba is in danger of running out of the H1N1 vaccine as demand for the potentially life-saving shot fast outstrips the province's supply.

The looming shortage expected to hit the province early next week forced health officials to publicly plead that those not on the priority list for the vaccine stay out of the lines now clogging free vaccination clinics across Manitoba.

"I'm asking you to just listen to the best advice that our doctors are giving us, to share this responsibility," Health Minister Theresa Oswald said Thursday. "We're in this together, Manitoba. I'm asking you to respect those priority lists.

"Please Manitoba, let's respect that list."

Oswald's appeal came as Manitoba's top health officials Thursday braced for more people being admitted to hospital intensive care units while they prepared for the likelihood the province will run out of vaccine next Tuesday before the next shipment of vaccine arrives a day later. At the same time, Winnipeggers were rushing to the vaccination clinics in such huge numbers that a number of clinics had reached capacity hours before they were scheduled to close, leaving people to be turned away.

The push to vaccinate people in the high-risk categories -- including aboriginal people, children under five years old and people under 65 with a chronic medical condition -- comes as more people fall ill to the flu strain and need treatment in hospital. Among children under five, there was one confirmed and three suspected cases of H1N1 at Health Sciences Centre on Thursday.

All were on respirators.

Winnipeg Regional Health Authority chief executive officer Dr. Brian Postl said the number of suspected flu cases in hospital now is not what it was last spring during the first wave of the H1N1 flu -- but that is likely to change.

Dr. Joel Kettner, the province's chief medical officer of health, said a number of adults and children have now been admitted to intensive care units for treatment. At least one has been lab-confirmed to have H1N1 and more positive confirmations are likely, he said.

"We're seeing evidence of people with severe illness and life-threatening illness," Kettner said, adding most if not all fall under the high-priority list of those who should get an H1N1 shot.

Kettner added he didn't know of any Manitoban who has died from H1N1 this fall. Last spring seven people died.

Officials are also driving home the need for those at risk to get a shot now because of the probability Manitoba will run out of the H1N1 vaccine -- it cannot be produced fast enough to meet the rising demand.

The initial two shipments of the vaccine were supposed to last six weeks, but almost a third has been used up in the four days the clinics have been open.

"This may mean that regional health authorities across Manitoba will announce that they are postponing clinics," Oswald said. "All the more reason to ensure that the people that need it the most need to get the vaccine first."

Oswald added people who show up at a clinic, and are not in a high-risk category, won't be turned away. But that could also change depending on what happens over the next few days. A clinic in Dauphin was already screening people at the door late Wednesday, according to a report.

Manitoba's first shipment of 134,000 doses came before the clinics opened last Monday and the province believed it would get the same number of doses in a second shipment this week, Gerry Delorme of Manitoba Health and Healthy Living said.

Instead, only 72,000 doses arrived. They were allocated to clinics right away.

The vaccine shortage is not confined to Manitoba.

"All the provinces and territories are dealing with this issue at exactly the same time," Delorme said. "We can't control what we're allocated. There are per capita and production issues that the federal government and (GlaxoSmithKline) are looking at. What we can control... when it arrives here, is getting it to the right people as fast as we can."

Canada's chief public health officer said late Thursday H1N1 vaccine deliveries to the provinces will slow down a bit over the next couple of weeks.

That's because the vaccine maker, GlaxoSmithKline, was asked to make special batches of the product for pregnant women and the switchover of production lines will lower output.

Dr. David Butler-Jones said the slowing of the flow would likely require some to scale back their vaccination efforts.

When more vaccine becomes available, people outside the priority list will be able to get it, Oswald said. "What Manitoba has ordered will be what is delivered, just not perhaps as quickly as we had hoped," she said, adding when enough vaccine is stockpiled, people will be told when they can get their shots.

-- with file from The Canadian Press

'Am I loving this press conference right now? Not really. I wish that I could sit here and tell you we're swimming in vaccine. Get your bikinis on. But we have to be honest with you and tell you we are going to experience an interruption'


-- Health Minister Theresa Oswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 30, 2009 A3

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