Congress Demands Answers Over H1N1 Vaccine Shortage

The Obama administration has ratchetted up demand for H1N1 flu vaccine, without sufficient supply to meet that demand, two senators charged in a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The "glaring discrepancy" between the demand for the vaccine and the supply available has resulted in pregnant women and others considered high-risk for the flu lining up for hours at clinics across the country to receive the vaccine, only to be turned away because of shortages, the letter said.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and ranking member Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, issued the letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, demanding answers as to why the department "insisted on promoting a plan for which the federal government did not have anywhere near sufficient resources to implement."

The letter, dated Nov. 16, argues that the primary problem is not the pace of vaccine development or the amount of vaccine developed thus far, but the mismanagement of public expectations about who could expect to receive the vaccine, and when.

"This problem was created in part by HHS's decision to promote vaccination of an initial target group that represents almost half the U.S. population; 160 million people," the senators wrote.

"The glaring discrepancy between the demand for and supply of H1N1 vaccine in our country has resulted in pregnant women standing in line for hours, only to find no vaccine at the end," the letter said. "This shortage of vaccine has left many parents of children in high risk groups scrambling, often in frustration, to find the vaccine the government has told them that they need.

"The fact is the response failed to meet the public demand for vaccine -- demand that the federal government accelerated by advising a larger group of the public to be vaccinated than it had the resources to meet," the senators wrote.

This afternoon, the committee has scheduled a hearing, and plans to call on HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Nicole Lurie to testify on behalf of the department.

Health Officials to Testify Today in Congress

Also expected to testify are the Centers for Disease Control's director for immunization and respiratory disease, Anne Schuchat, and Assistant Secretary and Department of Homeland Security chief medical officer Alexander G. Garza.

"We look forward to holding a frank conversation about these issues when representativesw of your Department appear before our Committee at the hearing," Lieberman and Collins said in their letter.

A recent Harvard School of Public Health poll found that a majority of adults who tried to get the H1N1 vaccine for themselves or their children were unable to do so. The poll, conducted Oct. 31 to Nov. 1, found that since the H1N1 flu vaccine became available in October, 17 percent of American adults, 41 percent of parents, and 21 percent of high-priority adults have tried to get it.

Among the adults who tried to get it for themselves, 70 percent were unable to get the vaccine; among the parents who tried to get the vaccine for their children, 66 percent were unable to do so; and of the high priority adults, 66 percent were unable to get it, according to the poll.

The poll also found that nearly a third of those who have tried and could not get the vaccine, either for themselves or for their children, are very frustrated. However, the poll also said 91 percent of those who have tried and not been able to get it yet will try again this year to get the vaccine for themselves, their children or both.

The CDC has identified as high-priority candidates for vaccination pregnant women and recently pregnant women, those who live with or care for children younger than 6 months of age, healthcare and emergency medical services personnel, people aged 6 months through 24 years, and persons aged 25 through 64 years who have health conditions associated with higher risk of medical complications from influenza, such as asthma or heart disease.

There have been more 900 deaths related to the H1N1 flu nationwide since the end of August.