ATLANTA -- The worst influenza outbreak in recent memory is rapidly spreading across the country and causing vaccine shortages for supermarkets and other providers.
Widespread influenza outbreaks have hit 24 states, up from 13 the week before, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention here reported at a media briefing on Dec. 11. Cases of the flu have been reported in all 50 states, CDC said.
Vaccine makers produced 83 million doses this year, according to the CDC. However, the early onset of the flu season, the emergence of a new strain, and public anxiety over the complications among children who have contracted this strain have sent retailers into vaccination overdrive.
Since its 36 pharmacies began administering flu vaccinations in late September, United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas, has already doled out more than 30,000 flu shots, said Leland Wehde, director, pharmacy services. But at most, 20 doses of the vaccine per pharmacy location are left to give out to patients, he said. In a typical flu season, the retailer administers 17,000 flu shots in total, he said. In the Colleyville, Texas, store alone, pharmacists have administered 5,000 flu shots this year, Wehde said.
"We've given more flu shots to children than ever," Wehde told SN. "The early arrival of the flu season really did impact us."
Consequently, the depletion of supplies has caused a recent spike in sales for intranasal spray vaccine FluMist, produced by MedImmune, Gaithersburg, Md. Media reports had predicted the product would not meet expectations in its first year. Now it appears it will help fill the shortage. About 4 to 5 million doses of FluMist were available for this flu season at press time, said Jamie Lacey, MedImmune spokeswoman. The company has sold about 400,000 as of November 17, she said.
United Supermarkets has increased the promotions of FluMist, selling 200 vaccines so far this flu season, Wehde said.
Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va., has notified customers of the retailer's short supply of flu vaccinations on its Web site, suggesting the FluMist alternative. John Beckner, director of pharmacy and whole health for the retailer, said Ukrop's pharmacies have administered 37,000 flu shots to patients this season with only a few doses left in select stores.
"We're promoting FluMist at this point," he said. "The demand has been unprecedented because of the news stories. Hopefully, the awareness [the media] created will cause people to get flu shots earlier next year."
FluMist is for healthy people between the ages of 5 and 49, according to MedImmune's Web site, and is intended for those with an aversion to injections. It costs about $50, said media reports, more than twice that of the typical flu shot. FluMist is a prescription item that must be kept frozen until it is administered by the pharmacist. It is marketed by Wyeth Vaccines, Philadelphia, Pa.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government has scrambled to bring additional shipments of flu vaccine to keep up with demand. The government bought 375,000 more doses of flu shots for adults last week from England, according to published reports. This supply boost reinforces 250,000 doses of flu shots purchased by the government earlier this month from manufacturer Aventis Pasteur, Swiftwater, Pa., which includes 150,000 doses for children, said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson in a media briefing.
The initial 100,000 adult shots were scheduled to arrive in the U.S. by the middle of the month while the pediatric doses will come in January, he said.