If you’ve ever had the flu, you know what it’s like to experience the seemingly endless barrage of blistering fever, harrowing sleeplessness and glottis-tickling nausea. But here’s a fact that’s really dizzying, no matter how healthy you are: So far, the Missoula County Health Department has received only 20 percent of the vaccine that it needs to inoculate the Garden City from the flu. And this at a time when the county is usually finishing up the task of protecting its citizens from the coming season of sickness, instead of just beginning it.
“It’s quite a challenge and it’s something that has been disconcerting, because typically we’ve done a lot of vaccinations by now,” says Yvonne Bradford, director of Missoula County’s public health nursing programs. “We had 400 doses utilized at a senior citizens’ clinic, but that only lasted two and a half hours.”
The shortage, Bradford says, is a symptom of a much broader problem: a nationwide backlog of flu vaccine. Vaccines, she explains, are updated every year to include the latest strains of disease-causing virus. But some of the specimens that scientists needed to cultivate this year were unusually slow-growing, which in turn set production of the newest serum back by several crucial weeks. This has left America’s biggest at-risk groups—especially children and the elderly—unprotected at the onset of winter.
“One of our commitments has always been to immunize folks in personal-care homes, since they’re high-risk and don’t have a professional health staff,” Bradford says. “So we’re anxiously awaiting another shipment.”
Complicating matters further is the fact that the whole country’s immunization system is handled entirely by the private sector, with a dense nexus of corporate manufacturers and distributors carrying the burden for America’s winter health. As a result, the state, county and municipal governments that buy the vaccines are nothing more than customers, which may explain why, even at higher levels of bureaucracy, officials seem powerless to fix the situation. All they can do, they say, is aid in communication.
“The vaccine is rolling in in dibs and dabs all around the country,” says Joyce Burgett, immunization program manager for the state of Montana. “So while some areas got all of their vaccine, others only got a couple hundred doses.”
In turn, Burgett says, her office has been serving as a “clearinghouse”—when a particular city or county calls in to report a shortage of vaccine, the state may refer them to another municipality that has called in with an overabundance of it. But beyond that, she says, there’s little more they can do.
Back in Missoula, health officials remain equally hamstrung but still hope to accomplish their task in time.
“We’ve been assured [by distribution companies] that between the fourth and the eighth of December, we’ll have enough to cover the home-care group,” says Bradford. “And I presume the rest will be coming after Dec 8.
In the meantime, Bradford wishes everyone to bear in mind that flu season usually doesn’t start until February, so there’s no cause for alarm. And vaccines may be available at private institutions, too, like hospitals, doctors’ offices, and the university, although they may be experiencing the same lag. Until more shipments come in, the best course is to make an extra effort to keep yourself healthy.