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Flip Flop on the Flu
Published on Monday, October 25, 2004 by CommonDreams.org
Flip Flop on the Flu
by Flavia Colgan
 
Finally, the Kerry campaign has put its finger on the Bush administration's Achilles heel: incompetence, and a terminal case of flip-flopping. "If you can't get flu vaccines to Americans how are you going to protect them against bioterrorism?" Kerry said yesterday. "If you can't get flu vaccines to Americans, what kind of health care program are you running?"

The response? The Bush administration's response to the flu vaccine crisis, which has been growing worse every year, is true to their standard MO: 1) put profits before people, 2) fly by the seat of your pants, 3) if you get into trouble, scramble, and cover your tracks with overblown rhetoric, and 4) flip flop without any trace of shame if you have to.

And major flip-flopping has been the response to the potentially deadly flu vaccine debacle of 2004. Deadly, because according to the CDC, the flu contributes to about 50,000 deaths a year. Flip-flopping, because the hypocrisy of now going to Canada to solve America's health care needs turns the Bush ban on importation of affordable drugs from Canada on its head.

This year's flu vaccine brouhaha has an intimate connection to Pennsylvania, the third largest egg-producing state in the US. What does flu vaccine have to do with the price of eggs? The current vaccine production technology uses eggs as a sort of incubator for the vaccine. One hand-injected egg produces enough flu virus for about four or five doses.

By 2002, there were only two flu vaccine production facilities left in America, both here in Pennsylvania. The combination of the antiquated egg technology (soon to be replaced by cell culture) and the fact that the flu virus mutates from year to year, make the production of flu vaccine a risky business. Wyeth, the company which closed its plant in Marietta, Pennsylvania, eliminating eight hundred jobs in the process, lost more than fifty million dollars over the previous three flu seasons.

The United States needed about a hundred million doses of flu vaccine for the 2004 season. When the Marietta plant closed, there was just one domestic production facility left, in the northeast Pennsylvania town of Swiftwater, capable of producing half of the hundred million necessary doses.

Up stepped Chiron, a California company which saw a quick profit in the making, if it could find a production plant already up and running. They did: in Liverpool, England. The Bush administration said fine, carelessly relying only on the company's own reports about the status and safety of the vaccine supply.

Trouble had been brewing for more than a year, though. Back in the summer of2003, US health regulators had found quality control problems at the Liverpool plant. Warning bells were going off for years, from every corner of the public health sector, and the government itself. But nothing was done by the Bush Administration until five days after British authorities revoked the plant's license.

On October 5, the Chiron Corporation announced it would not be able to deliver 48 million doses bound for the U.S. market. They had been impounded by the British drug-regulatory agency because of bacterial contamination.

Dr. Irwin E. Redlener, associate dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, called the shortage "utterly predictable," arguing "you cannot have a vital function like vaccine production limited to the manufacturing capacity of two companies. It leaves no room for failure."

W. Paul Glezen, a flu researcher at Baylor Medical Center, said the Bush Administration was ultimately responsible for allowing the nation's flu vaccine supply to depend on just two companies. They "didn't display any comprehension of what the problem was and what should be done about it," he said."

The General Accounting Office, the government's own watchdog agency, raised the alarm three years ago, saying: "a production delay or shortfall experienced by even one of the remaining manufacturers can significantly impact overall vaccine availability."

Well, now for the punch line. What is George W. Bush's response to the missing 48 million doses of flu vaccine?

"My call to our fellow Americans is if you're healthy, if you're younger, don't get a flu shot this year," Bush said. "Help us prioritize those who need to get the flu shot, the elderly and the young." Essentially, the Bush plan is exactly as John Kerry described it: "pray you don't get sick."

Shortly after the president's sage advice on staying healthy, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines giving certain groups priority to receive flu vaccines: infants, people over 65, people with chronic medical conditions, pregnant women, and health care workers with direct contact with patients.

What about the other 50 million people who are at risk for the flu? What about the economic impact of the disease, both in lost man hours of work and in preventable health care costs? Dr. John Treanor, an infectious disease expert at the University of Rochester Medical Center, says this year's flu vaccine shortage could cause deaths to spike by 25 percent. How can the Bush administration, with a straight face, call this policy anything but a colossal failure?

And here's the kicker: after all the fuss about protecting pharmaceuticals' profits by prohibiting drug importation from Canada, what does George W. Bush propose?

Yes, ladies and gentlemenů. Flip-Flopper-in-Chief George W. Bush, the president who refuses to allow seniors and others to buy drugs from Canada because it is a "health risk" for American citizens now wants to "work with Canada" to "help us realize the vaccine necessary to make sure our citizens have got flu vaccinations during this upcoming season."

What's next? Rebaptizing Freedom Fries as French Fries?

Flavia Colgan is an MSNBC commentator.

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