Minn. called a leader in flu vaccine crisis

Cati Vanden Breul

Minnesota is leading the nation in dealing with the flu vaccine crisis, a University health professor said on Friday.

Michael Osterholm, a School of Public Health professor and Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy director, and Kristen Ehresmann, manager of the Immunization, Tuberculosis, and International Health Section at the Minnesota Department of Health, spoke to a crowd of approximately 50 people in the Coffman Union Theater about the local, national and global implications of the vaccine crisis.

Ehresmann said that the problem started when the United Kingdom revoked the license of one of the two main flu vaccine distributors after finding part of the vaccine supply was contaminated. The United States was expecting to receive half of its flu vaccine from the company, she said.

This was problematic because flu vaccine is manufactured in a yearlong process, Ehresmann said. There is no quick way to make and distribute more vaccine, she said.

After conducting a survey, Minnesota health officials decided in October that the state was short of the vaccine by 50 percent. They decided getting flu vaccine to high-risk individuals such as the elderly was the top priority, Ehresmann said.

The Minnesota Department of Health and public health organizations have been working together to get the vaccine where it needs to be, Ehresmann said. Long-term care providers for the elderly have been a major target because they were the population that the vaccine shortage hit hardest.

Ehresmann said many Minnesota health-care workers who would normally get vaccinated were asked to forgo the flu shot to ensure there was enough vaccine for high-risk individuals.

“This caused a lot of confusion and frustration among health-care workers when they heard our recommendations,” Ehresmann said. “Prioritizing like that is hard and not popular.”

But Ehresmann said there are alternatives to the shot.

Many health-care workers unable to get the shot received FluMist, a nasal spray that vaccinates against the flu, Ehresmann said.

She said she is finally feeling more comfortable about the situation in Minnesota.

“We’re finally getting to the point after six weeks where we feel that our efforts are paying off,” she said.

Osterholm, who has served as a personal adviser to U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, said pharmaceutical companies need to invest in more modern ways to develop flu vaccine.

He said the current method, which involves incubating the flu virus in chicken eggs, takes too much time and isn’t producing enough vaccine.

“We’re using the same (production) method as we did 50 years ago,” Osterholm said.

He said that although researchers know how to manufacture the vaccine using cell cultures, a method that produces much more vaccine, there is not enough investment in the procedure to make it widespread.

Osterholm also spoke about what he said he sees as a potential pandemic outbreak of the flu that will soon occur in Southeast Asia.

A flu pandemic occurs when a new strain of flu develops that humans are not yet able to vaccinate against, he said.

Pandemic flu is much more fatal, with deaths usually occurring between 48 to 72 hours after inception.

He said he is worried there is not enough vaccine to immunize against the pandemic.

“I hope we use the example of what we just learned with the flu vaccine crisis in the U.S. to understand why investment in new research methods is important,” Osterholm said.