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Key charity issues alert on flu vaccine

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

The Victorian Order of Nurses sent a bulletin to its branches across the country yesterday, warning that the non-profit charity suffers from a shortage of flu shots and cannot find any more for sale.

About 20,000 doses of vaccine are needed for this season's flu clinics, said VON spokeswoman Farah Mohamed, and some may be cancelled. Revenue from those clinics would normally finance other programs. "For us, it's a double whammy," Ms. Mohamed said.

The shortfall is the largest reported by any Canadian vaccine provider this season, but many others have been complaining in the past two weeks as the manufacturers of flu vaccines, ID Biomedical and Aventis Pasteur, started rejecting all requests for more shots.

The drug makers say their supplies have been depleted more quickly than usual as worried Canadians react to news of a U.S. shortage by rushing to get injected.

"There's a buzz out there, for sure," said Nancy Simpson, a spokeswoman for Aventis.

Another reason for the shortfall is that Canadian governments have exercised the option in their supply contracts that allows them to buy 110 per cent of their original orders, Ms. Simpson added.

"Because the government took that additional 10 per cent from us and ID Biomedical, we came up a little bit short," she said.

Canadian governments ordered about 10 million flu shots this year, while pharmacies, clinics, and other private providers bought about one million doses. Most of the public supply goes to so-called at-risk populations such as children and the elderly, with the exception of Ontario, where free flu shots are available to all residents.

Provincial and territorial representatives compared notes about their vaccine supplies during a conference call yesterday. At least two expressed concern about having distributed their entire quotas.

Saskatchewan officials have asked regional health authorities to avoid giving flu shots to healthy people in the coming weeks to make sure that high-risk people can get them.

Among private providers, shortages are already becoming common. We Care Home Health Services, one of the largest private providers of flu shots in Canada, normally sells 20,000 to 25,000 doses each year but has been informed by Aventis in recent days that a request for 15,000 doses cannot be filled. "We've cancelled some clinics and our offices are scrambling, going to pharmacists and trying to get some," said Sue Kelly, the company's national health and wellness manager.

Sharon Wilms, director of the Winnipeg office for Bayshore HealthCare, said in an interview last week that a lack of about 400 shots would probably force her to cancel nine upcoming clinics.

Clinics that are not cancelled will probably operate at a loss, Ms. Wilms added, because the wholesale price of flu shots has climbed to about $9 from $4.

Those supply problems have prompted grumbling about the fact that many Americans are travelling north and getting their shots at Canadian clinics and pharmacies since a contamination scare cut the U.S. supply almost in half.

"This is what really annoys me," Ms. Kelly said. "It seems strange that I can't get vaccines but the Americans can."

But a source at the Victorian Order of Nurses said the problem seems to have been caused by an avalanche of demand from Canadians, not U.S. visitors.

With a report from Canadian Press

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