CBS News Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin reports deliveries of this year's vaccine were delayed because of production difficulties, and many pockets of the country are still struggling to protect the public.
Amid reports of price gouging by drug distributors, some are calling for the federal government to intervene, saying that the delay could cost lives.
"If the vaccination rate goes down 10 percent, that's almost 200 deaths if the flu strikes," said general practitioner Lee McCormick. "That's scary."
In McCormick's Western Pennsylvania clinic, boxes are brimming with the needles and cotton balls required for a mass vaccination program. All that's missing is the vaccine.
The situation has forced McCormick to turn many elderly patients like Barbara Meyer away.
"I would like to get it, but you can't get it anywhere," said Meyer.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has no control over vaccine distribution, but some doctors are calling for the federal government to step in.
The flu season may be off to a slow start so far, they say, but all it takes is an unprotected population to kick off a deadly epidemic.
The CDC said last week that the nationwide shortage of vaccine is expected to ease by mid-month, and that nearly 70 percent of the expected 75 million vaccinations have been administered this flu season. But full distribution of the vaccines was not expected to be complete until late December, possibly early January.
In 14 of the past 18 winters, large outbreaks of the flu did not begin until January or later. But it takes two weeks after taking the shot for full immunity to develop.
After January 1, it could be too late for the vaccine to be effective.
This year's delivery delay has been blamed on the flu itself. Each year, federal health officials choose three strains of the virus for new inoculations, but one of this year's strains the A-Panama proved difficult to produce.
But McCormick now believes the delay in shipments has lead to an unprecedented and unethical bidding war, with stories of distributors charging four times the vaccine's value to those who can afford it. Some reports have suggested supermarket chains that offer vaccines and some private employers got first call on the limited supplies.
"Influenza vaccine shouldn't be treated like Super Bowl tickets," McCormick said. "The folks who need the vaccine should have access to it."
Influenza kills, on average, 20,000 people a year in the United States and puts 100,000 in the hospital.
Yet only about 63 percent of people over the age of 65 get their flu hots, and the percentages are even lower for blacks and Hispanics.
Persons at highest risk for contracting the flu include:
- Anyone over age 64.
- People of any age who have chronic heart or lung disorders, including asthma, or who have diabetes, kidney disease or a weakened immune system.
- Women who will be in the second or third trimester of pregnancy during flu season.
- Health care workers and family members who are in contact with high-risk patients.
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