Flu shot regulations in states restricting pharmacies from freely administering flu shots may keep many people from getting immunized and leave millions of vaccines unused, many health care professionals say.
As the CDC looks to expand the scope of immunizations to the largest number of people yet, states that require citizens to get a prescription to receive the flu vaccine by pharmacists are finding it difficult to accommodate the increasing numbers who are recommended for vaccinations.
The policy will turn many people away from getting a flu shot, said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University.
"Over the past decade, pharmacists have shown that they are very important partners in providing influenza vaccinations to the population," Schaffner said. "Having a physician's prescription is a barrier to more effective delivery of immunizations."
The flu vaccine is the primary method recommended by health officials to prevent the flu, which kills an estimated 36,000 Americans every year. While in past years the demand for flu shots outweighed the number of vaccines available, this season, Schaffner said, there may be too many flu vaccines created and not enough health professionals to administer the shots.
According to the CDC, licensed manufacturers in the United States have created 146 million doses of the vaccine for use during this flu season.
"Two-thirds of the population already falls into the CDC recommendations for the flu vaccine," Schaffner said. "And there is a great fear that we may have to discard as many as 20 million or more vaccines."
Sanofi Pasteur, Inc., a pharmaceutical company that supplies 50 percent of vaccines across the country to health care providers, has increased its workforce in anticipation of the growing market. But, in fact, the company expects losses because of the large amount of vaccines predicted to be disposed, said Len Lavenda, spokesman for Sanofi Pasteur.
"We haven't seen any change in patterns of [providers] ordering [the flu vaccine]," Lavenda said. "Right now, the big drive is to have as many people vaccinated, and we support removing the barriers and the inconvenience that will keep people from doing just that."
While some states have successfully changed regulations to let pharmacists immunize, others are finding ways to work around policies requiring prescriptions.
New York Gov. David Paterson signed legislation this month to allow pharmacists to administer flu and pneumonia vaccinations, which was not previously permitted in the state. In Arizona and South Carolina, a person needs a prescription from a physician before a pharmacist can administer the vaccine. And in other states, such as Maine, and the District of Columbia, pharmacists have never been allowed to give flu shots.
In September, Georgia became the latest state requiring a prescription for flu shots. Georgia's medical code states pharmacists can only give immunizations to patients with a valid prescription order for each dose. A complaint filed this year with the Georgia Board of Pharmacy prompted a new understanding of the code: Pharmacies can no longer give a flu shot without a prescription.
Vaccines are classified as a dangerous drug in Georgia, due to rare adverse effects reported with some vaccines. Georgia health officials now say they understand the code to mean that a prescription was required all along.