Too Much Medicine

Flu shot surpluses across the nation could end up in the trash.

ByABC News
January 18, 2007, 3:38 PM

Jan. 19, 2007— -- Last year at this time, Dr. James Nordin had run out of flu vaccines. This year, the Health Partners Medical Group in St. Paul, Minn., where Nordin is a pediatrician has 3,000 unused doses that are headed to the Dumpster if more patients don't take them.

And Minnesota isn't the only place overstocked with the shots. Though the flu season has yet to hit many parts of the country, doctors at several clinics in the U.S. are struggling to get people to take the vaccine.

"Once Christmas comes, people no longer think about flu shots," says Nordin.

Public health officials say that a delay in production, problems in the distribution system and good old fashioned psychology are to blame for the excess vaccines. And if the problems persist, it could mean a shortage of vaccines next winter.

The flu shot isn't your typical vaccine. Its formula is changed every year by officials who try to predict which strain of the virus will hit next, and its distribution is handled mainly by private companies who earn comparatively low profits for their efforts. And each year, the Center for Disease Control releases recommendations for which segments of the population should take the shot.

All these moving variables make finding the balance between surplus and shortage each year very difficult. And the problem is serious: an estimated 36,000 Americans die every year from the flu, and 200,000 are hospitalized.

Two years ago, a flu shot shortage caused Sen. John Kerry to comment during his presidential campaign that he would not be taking the shot, leaving one of the only 54 million U.S. doses available for someone else more at-risk. This year, almost twice the numbers of shots are available, and doctors are having trouble even giving them away.

And because the flu shot costs clinics $11 to $20 per dose, that could mean big financial losses nationwide.

The surplus problem started last fall, when production of the flu vaccine was delayed by a month due to sterilization issues with some manufacturers. Because most people who get flu shots do so in the early fall, many patients were turned away from their clinics.