Influenza Vaccine:

Shortages in 2004-05 Season Underscore Need for Better Preparation

GAO-05-984: Published: Sep 30, 2005. Publicly Released: Nov 3, 2005.

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In early October 2004, the nation lost about half its expected influenza vaccine supply when one of two major manufacturers announced it would not release any vaccine for the 2004-05 season because of potential contamination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had earlier recommended vaccination for 188 million individuals, including those at high risk of severe complications from influenza (such as seniors and those with chronic conditions), and other groups (such as their close contacts). Although health officials took actions to distribute the limited supply of influenza vaccine, reports persisted of high-risk individuals and others in priority groups who could not find a vaccination, including those who were turned away and never returned when supplies became available. Such reports raised questions about the adequacy of U.S. preparedness to respond to significant vaccine shortages. GAO was asked to examine actions taken at federal, state, and local levels to ensure that high-risk individuals had access to influenza vaccine during the shortage, including any lessons learned.

Federal, state, and local health officials took several actions beginning in October 2004 to help ensure that individuals at high risk of severe complications from influenza had access to vaccine. Federal officials, for example, quickly revised vaccination recommendations to target available vaccine to high-risk individuals and to other priority groups. Additional actions were aimed to distribute vaccine expeditiously and to communicate with providers and the public as events unfolded and vaccine supplies changed. Beginning in mid-December, health officials took steps to distribute additional vaccine, broadening recommendations on who should be vaccinated. Although these actions helped achieve vaccination rates approaching past levels for certain priority groups, such as those aged 65 years and older, several lessons emerged, including some that could help with future shortages. First, unless planning for problems is already in place, action is delayed. CDC's lack of a contingency plan contributed to delays and uncertainty about how to ensure that high-risk individuals had access to vaccine. Second, when actions occur late in the influenza season, they are likely to have little effect. Third, effective response requires communication that is both clear and consistent. CDC has taken a number of steps, including issuing interim guidelines in August 2005, to respond to possible future shortages. It is too early, however, to assess the effectiveness of these efforts in coordinating actions of federal, state, and local health agencies and others. In commenting on a draft of this report, HHS concurred with GAO's finding that contingency planning would improve response efforts, and the agency indicated that additional preparations were under way.

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