Demand for flu shots jumped in the Valley on Wednesday, the day after health authorities were rocked by news of a severe shortage of the vaccine this year.
“The demand has obviously tripled since yesterday,” said Dr. Art Mollen, who oversees vaccinations in about 40 clinics statewide. “I don’t necessarily see a panic out there, however. I’m glad to see that.”
Mollen said it appears people already have gotten the message that flu shots should be reserved for the very young, the elderly, pregnant women and people whose underlying health problems make them susceptible to the dangerous disease.
“I think that’s outstanding and commend the people of Arizona,” he said.
Several other East Valley doctors’ offices said they hadn’t seen a spike in demand Wednesday, nor had Dr. Karen Lewis, infectious disease specialist for the Arizona Department of Health Services. However, Lewis said, “I know people who are in the high-risk category who want to go ahead and get their shots” as soon as possible.
Flu season in the United States normally begins in November or December, but health authorities begin urging immunizations in October.
Last year the first case of influenza was reported in the East Valley the last week of October. It came as health officials warned of an unusually dangerous flu season along with a shortage of vaccine, and by early December many East Valley pharmacies and medical facilities were swamped with long lines of people seeking shots.
This year’s vaccine shortage will be even graver than last year’s because British authorities, citing manufacturing problems, unexpectedly shut down a major flu-shot supplier Tuesday. The plant had been expected to make about 46 million doses for shipment to the United States.
American companies that make the vaccine can’t compensate in time because the process, which involves cultivating live flu viruses in chicken eggs, takes many months.
State health officials, appearing Wednesday in a press conference with Gov. Janet Napolitano, said Arizona likely will get only a million doses this year, compared with 2 million last season.
Lewis, though, sees a silver lining.
“The system of getting safe vaccine out there works,” she said. “They check the sterility to make sure in the multiple steps of making the vaccine there is not a breakdown of sterility. Because of this, they are not sending unsafe vaccine out there.”
Even with the shortage, Lewis said, “If we prioritize correctly there is no reason for panic.” People in generally good health do not need the vaccine to the degree that others do, she said. “Healthy people rarely have serious complications from influenza, although they may miss a week of school or work.”
Furthermore, Lewis said, influenza is only one of many ailments that circulate during the winter. The vaccine protects against a constantly mutating virus that’s held responsible for killing about 36,000 mostly elderly people each year in the United States. But it won’t stop any cold viruses whose symptoms can sometimes be flu-like.
Mollen said he won’t reject apparently healthy people who want the shots.
“Our job is not to police this,” he said. “It’s very difficult to turn away someone who comes to one of our clinics and they wait in line for an hour, and then tell them they can’t get an immunization. . . . All I can say is, let their conscience be their guide.”