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Archive for Thursday, October 21, 2004

Flu-shot fiasco

Plans to conduct an immunization drill shouldn’t undermine the more important goal of getting flu shots to those who need them most.

October 21, 2004

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Even at this late date the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department should rethink its plan to ask local residents to line up for flu shots as part of a mass immunization drill Saturday.

The drill originally was intended as a way to test local health workers' ability to deal with thousands of people seeking treatment because of a bioterrorism incident or major epidemic. To simulate the crowds that would result from such an event, the health department decided to draw people in with the offer of free flu shots.

It all made sense until the nation's supply of flu vaccine was cut almost in half by the closure of a British plant that manufactured the vaccine. Because of the shortage, national health officials are asking healthy young and middle-aged people to forgo their flu shots so that there will be enough vaccine for young children, the elderly and infirm people who are at higher risk.

Several other Kansas communities have canceled their immunization drills, but Lawrence and Douglas County officials have decided to forge ahead. The clinic is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Free State High School. Because many local retirement communities have been unable to obtain flu vaccine, they have little choice but to recommend that their residents attend the drill/clinic. The event, however, seems diametrically opposed to statements by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson that there is enough vaccine available for high-risk groups and that seniors shouldn't stand in line to obtain their shots.

Health officials may try to screen those attending Saturday's clinic and reserve the vaccine for those most at risk, but there apparently will be no requirement for people to provide proof of their age or some chronic illness that would place them in a high-risk group. Not only will the clinic likely be crowded with older people who may have to wait some time to receive vaccinations, but a lack of effective screening may mean that some of the shots will go to people who aren't at high risk.

There has to be a better way.

Combining flu shots with an immunization drill would have been a workable idea if vaccine supplies were sufficient to meet demand. The offer of free flu shots would have attracted large numbers of mostly able-bodied people, providing a good test of the health departments readiness to deal with such a situation. But the situation has changed. Local senior citizens already are making plans to arrive at Free State by 8 a.m. or earlier, prepared to wait for hours, to obtain a flu shot.

With the vaccine shortage, the clinic/drill isn't the best way to make sure that the limited number of available flu shots are delivered to the people who need them most. The shots should be made available at retirement centers, senior centers, the health department and doctors' offices where they can be conveniently administered rather than asking senior citizens and people with chronic illnesses to amass at one location for a single four-hour clinic.

The drill may not have been a bad idea originally, but if local officials want to avoid creating their own little disaster, they should drop the drill and concentrate on how to best distribute flu shots to those who need them most.

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