WASHINGTON – Maryland health officials will confer Wednesday on contingency plans for this year’s flu season, after indications that the influenza vaccine may not be available for mass vaccinations until January.
Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledged Tuesday that “there is going to be a delay” in delivering the vaccine to local health departments and physicians’ offices, but they could not say how long a delay or whether there might be a shortage.
“Everything seems to be fluid right now,” said Charlis Thompson of the CDC. Thompson said it would be three to four weeks before CDC officials have a better grasp on the status of the vaccine supply.
But Maryland officials “are definitely involved in preparing for the delay,” said Jean Taylor of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
David Blythe, an epidemiologist for the department, said there “will be some (vaccine) available fairly soon.” But he said large-scale vaccination clinics will be delayed because there will likely not be enough vaccine available until later in the flu season.
The first vaccinations in Maryland will be limited to people with the greatest risk for developing complications from the flu, according to J.B. Hanson of the state health department. Those groups include the elderly, nursing home residents and individuals with chronic health conditions.
“Each year the vaccine is a little different,” said Hanson. A new supply of the vaccine must be created each year to account for new strains.
State officials were first alerted to a possible delay in June, when the CDC notified health-care agencies of problems with production of this year’s vaccine. According to a June 22 press release from the CDC, production of the vaccine this year was hampered by several issues, including difficulty growing one of the strains of influenza that is needed to manufacture the vaccine.
Much of the state’s planning will have to focus on the private sector, such as physicians’ offices, where about 80 percent of the vaccinations in Maryland are administered. Taylor said the other 20 percent of vaccinations are typically given in public health settings.
About 20,000 people die and more than 110,000 are hospitalized each year from influenza, also called “the flu.” According to a CDC press release, even though the influenza vaccine can be taken anytime during the flu season, October through mid-November is the best time to get vaccinated.
Maryland health officials said flu season usually runs from November through April with a peak time from mid-January through February. Most individuals develop antibodies to the virus within two weeks after receiving the vaccine.
An FDA spokesman would only say Tuesday that manufacturers “have told FDA to expect delays in shipments of the flu vaccine.” Lawrence Bachorik also said, however, that the availability of vaccine — or lack thereof — is not the only factor that determines whether it will be a bad flu season
“It’s not possible to predict when the flu season will begin or how severe it will be,” Bachorik said.