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Millions of H1N1 vaccine doses may have to be discarded

Natalie Marin, 7, was among the millions of people who received the H1N1 vaccine across the country.
Natalie Marin, 7, was among the millions of people who received the H1N1 vaccine across the country. (Alex Brandon/AP)
SOURCE: | The Washington Post - April 1, 2010

Of the 229 million doses bought by the federal government, about 162.5 million were put into vials and syringes, which starts the clock ticking on an expiration date. About 25 million are being donated to poor countries, and about 35 million remain in bulk form, which lasts longer and could be used if the virus flares up again later this year or as part of next year's seasonal flu vaccine. The Defense Department received about 3 million doses.

Overall, about one-third of people considered at the highest risk from the virus, including nearly 37 percent of children ages 6 months to 17 years, were vaccinated through January. But the proportion of people immunized varied widely nationwide, with some states reporting vaccination rates three times as high as others.

"The message we should take away from this experience is that we need to continue to explore technologies to improve the stability of the flu vaccine supply and, equally as important, we need to invest in public health infrastructure to make sure that there are strong health departments to communicate with the public and administer vaccine once it is produced," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.).

The World Health Organization, meanwhile, faces mounting charges that it overreacted to the pandemic. The Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly is investigating allegations that the Geneva-based arm of the United Nations was influenced by pharmaceutical companies to exaggerate the risk, thereby helping in vaccine sales.

WHO officials have strongly disputed the charges, saying the response was vital given the uncertainty about the new virus and its potential threat. Many independent public health experts have defended the agency.

Nevertheless, the WHO has launched an internal review of its response and announced Monday that a committee of 29 outside experts would conduct an independent assessment. The critique will include whether WHO's pandemic alert system should consider the severity of a new virus, not just whether it is novel and spreading globally.

"Could we have made decisions better? Could we have considered things in a different way at the time?" said Keiji Fukuda, WHO's top flu official, told reporters Monday. "We, along with many others, are asking the same kinds of questions of ourselves and each other."

The CDC estimates that more than 60 million people in the United States were sickened by the virus, at least 265,000 were hospitalized and more than 12,000 died. Although about 36,000 residents succumb in a typical flu season, officials said H1N1 tended to kill pregnant women, children and otherwise healthy young adults, making the impact far more serious than the numbers alone indicate.

Infections have dropped sharply in most of the country, but the CDC reported Monday that the virus was still spreading in several southeastern states, including Georgia, where hospitalizations have increased in recent weeks.

Internationally, officials are concerned because the virus has started spreading widely for the first time in some parts of the Southern Hemisphere, especially in poor African countries with limited resources to stem the spread and treat cases.

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