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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Tommy Thompson
Health and Human Services Secretary
Flu Vaccine Fact Sheet
October 19, 2004

Thanks for joining us today. "Ask the White House" will begin very soon.

Tommy Thompson

Jennifer, from Cincinnati, Ohio writes:
As I see all our elderly standing in lines outside groceries hoping for a flu shot, I wonder if there's anything that the government could do to round up the remaining shots and see that the most elderly, the most ill could receive a shot without waiting for hours in various weather conditions. Certainly people in nursing homes have little hope of getting their shot since they can't get out to wait in the lines.

Thank you for any help that you could give these people.

Tommy Thompson
Jennifer, thank you for your question on this very important public health issue. Our public health experts are working night and day to direct this vaccine to the people who need it the most and to prevent the need for waiting in long lines.

On October 5, my agency was notified by Chiron Corporation that its entire production of influenza vaccine might be contaminated. The Food and Drug Administration immediately inspected the plant, and concluded that it would not be safe for consumers to use this vaccine. It was important that we caught this problem and prevented contaminated vaccine from being used in the U.S., but the manufacturing problems reduced our expected supply. We now expect to have approximately 58 million doses of the flu shot for this year, with some additional doses of a flu nasal spray, and approximately 40 million doses of antiviral treatments, which can be used to treat the flu. The shortage poses a challenge, but we are working as hard as we can to keep Americans safe.

First, we are working with State and local officials to ensure that the flu shot is given to those with the highest priority, including seniors and very young children (those 6 to 23 months). Most people between the ages of 2 to 64 should not get the shot. We’re grateful that Americans who don’t need the shot are stepping aside so that those with a greater health risk from flu can get it. Approximately 35 million doses of the vaccine have been distributed. Fourteen million more will be sent out in the next six to seven weeks to the communities with the greatest need and later this week we will announce an allocation plan for the remaining doses.

We are also continuing to explore every possible opportunity to acquire more doses of the shot from manufacturers in other countries. If additional vaccine is available, my Department will review the safety of these vaccines with the greatest possible speed.

I am working with the Attorneys General of each State to make sure that we go after any price gougers and prosecute those found to be taking unfair advantage of the shortage. It is extremely disturbing to learn of reports of price gouging by immoral individuals looking to make a quick buck.

And today I announced a new interagency Flu Response Task Force that includes high-ranking officials from my Department and the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, Veterans’ Affairs, and the Federal Trade Commission. Our task force will make sure that we have a comprehensive coordinated federal response.

Michael, from Knoxville writes:
we have gone through this shortage for the past several years why cant we just have the drug companys make extra during the non flu season

Tommy Thompson
That is a good question, Michael.

Every year, a new vaccine is made based on recommendations by public health experts as to which influenza virus strains are most likely to impact people that year. Once the virus is identified, it takes literally months to fully develop vaccine doses, which are grown in chicken eggs. The vaccine is updated each year, and so we can’t stockpile the flu vaccine from year to year the way we do with other vaccines.

However, the Administration has taken several important steps to prepare for any possible problems with the flu vaccine, like the one that occurred this year with Chiron.

First, the President has made an unprecedented investment in flu preparedness. Overall funding for flu preparedness has been increased from $39 million when he took office to a proposed $283 million for 2005, an increase of 720%. We proposed $100 million in both 2004 and 2005 to help develop next generation flu vaccine, which can be produced year-round and on short notice. Congress provided $50 million of that funding in this year, but we are confident they will fund the full amount in 2005.

In addition, I began implementing a new program this year that commits $40 million to purchase 4.5 million additional flu vaccine doses that can be given to children in case of a shortage. This is the first Administration in history to implement this kind of program, and it’s making us safer.

And, we are the first Administration to stockpile antiviral treatments for anyone who catches the flu. We stockpiled 7 million of these treatments, and there are 40 million treatments available in the private sector.

Marie, from Milwaukee writes:
please remind people more that the shortage of flu vaccines is largely due to the fact that many of the companies who made them, did not want to be sued and stopped producing vaccines.

Tommy Thompson
Thanks for raising that point, Marie. Vaccines are a very important tool in protecting the public health, and since this President took office, we have been working to address problems facing the vaccine industry.

The number of vaccine manufacturers has steadily declined over the last few decades. Thirty years ago, there were 25 companies making vaccines for America. Today there are only five and only two of them manufacture the influenza vaccine. To help revitalize this industry, the President has dramatically increased funding for research and development of vaccines, from 2001 funding of $595.6 million to 2005 funding of over $1.4 billion. He has proposed a program to encourage more domestic development of flu vaccines, including next generation flu vaccines which can be produced on short notice year round. He proposed $100 million in 2004 and 2005. Congress provided $50 million in this year, and we are hopeful they will provide full funding in next year.

And, of course, the President has urged Congress to take the critical step of providing vaccine manufacturers with liability protection. As the President said in June of this year, “it's very important for Congress to allow for the acceleration of new vaccines by not allowing frivolous and junk lawsuits to stand in the way of progress…. The faster a vaccine can be developed and get to market, the more lives will be saved.” Medical liability reforms that would apply to vaccine manufacturers have passed the House but have been blocked in the Senate. We will keep working with Congress to get these measures passed.

Leo, from Acadia writes:
Youve said numerous times that you oppose against the importation of Canadian drugs because of safety issues. Yet you said the other night that you were working on obtaining flu vaccines from Canada. Why do you trust the Canadians for this medicine but not others?

Tommy Thompson
Thank you for the good question.

If we purchase flu vaccine from Canada or any other country, the Federal government acts as the official purchaser and can therefore can ensure a higher level of safety. We will have the opportunity to carefully examine the plant where the vaccine is manufactured, to determine how the vaccine is stored and shipped and labeled, and to make sure that the vaccine is administered by a medical professional according to instructions.

Currently, we cannot take all of these steps with respect to broad importation of prescription drugs. During one investigation, my agency found that 88% of imported drugs were unapproved. We found animal drugs shipped for human use, drug labels written in Chinese, and pills shipped from a Canadian website that were packaged in a tupperware container and turned out to be from India.

I appointed a Task Force this year to study the safety problems with importation. The President has asked us to identify resources and authorities that would be necessary to do importation safely. The President has said that if we can allow importation safely, it makes sense.

Kathy, from South Carolina writes:
Yesterday a local paper and news station states to the elderly not to worry, enough vaccine is coming for at risk and children and not to stand in lines. I called our local Health dept. and they said not to tell people to call them, they were not expecting any more and people should just read the paper for posting. They also told me if anymore came it would go to nursing homes. I work with the elderly at the AAA in Greenwood. They are calling me and I really do not know what to say to them. How are they suppose to get on a list? and is there really anymore coming? The papers are misleading and the elderly are looking for a reliable source of information. Can you give some realiable info?

Tommy Thompson
Kathy, thank you for writing.

I'm reminding everyone in the priority populations for influenza vaccine this year: Don't risk your health by standing in line four hours. Call ahead and make an appointment, when possible. We are working with the vaccine manufacturer to ensure that the vaccine is getting to those who need it most in the areas that need it most.

We have 20 million more adult doses of vaccine on the way. Aventis Pasteur is bringing it out of the factory as quickly as possible, about 3 million doses per week. Vaccinators are being notified when their vaccine doses are coming so they can plan orderly vaccination of priority people in their communities in flu clinics over the next 6 weeks.

It's also important to remember that it's early in the season and there are only sporadic reports of outbreaks in the United States. Usually, people don't get vaccinated until late October or November. So the pattern isn't very different than it's been in the past. We understand that people are worried about not being able to get their shot, but we want them to know that additional vaccine is on the way.

Our priority right now is to make sure that those frail and elderly people do get their dose of vaccine. Thankfully, in most communities, people are stepping aside so that those people who need it the most can get their shot.

Will, from New York writes:
Why doesnt the President get a flu shot? Isn't it fairly important that he not get sick?

Tommy Thompson
Thanks, Will. Of course it's very important to keep the President healthy. However, the Centers for Disease Control have recommended that those who are not at high risk of complication from flu should not be vaccinated, so that the vaccine can be used for the elderly, young children, and others who need it the most. The President thinks it is important to lead by example, and so he's decided not to be vaccinated this year.

He is, however, taking a number of steps to stay healthy during flu season. First, he understands the important role of washing your hands frequently. It's also helpful to avoid touching your eyes, hands, or mouth, which can spread germs. In addition, the President -- and all Americans -- can help stay healthy by limiting their exposure to anyone who is sick. Americans who think they might have the flu should stay home if possible, and should always cover their mouths when they are coughing or sneezing to avoid passing the flu.

People must remember that influenza is a treatable illness, in terms of symptomatic therapies and anti-viral drugs that can actually limit the infection and its effects.

Colleena, from Hurdle Mills, NC writes:
Your comment in our local paper says there is enough flu vaccine for the elderly and those at high risk. My husband is high risk and my dad is elderly and high risk. Both of there physicians have stated they don't have the vaccine and won't be getting it. Our local health dept states the same. You said to contact CDC and I did. I have received no response. What are we to do?

Tommy Thompson
Thank you for the question, Colleena.

Approximately 35 million flu vaccine doses have been distributed so far. Fourteen million more doses will be distributed in the next six to seven weeks to those areas with the greatest need.

It is important for high priority individuals who need the flu shot, like seniors and very young children, to contact the CDC and their local public health departments. Your calls are being used to help identify which areas are experiencing shortages.

Continue to check with your local providers and look for notices of when additional vaccine doses may be arriving.

Thanks for joining us today and thanks to Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson for taking questions on this important topic.

Tommy Thompson

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