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Health secretary: No flu vaccine crisis

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(CNN) -- The shortage of flu vaccine in the United States is "not a health crisis," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said, urging people to be patient as the government works to reallocate the nation's limited number of vaccines.

"I would like to tell individuals just be calm and don't stand in line, because we have approximately 24 million doses of vaccine that have not been shipped yet," Thompson said Sunday.

"We're reallocating those vaccines and shipments to regions that have a shortage, and we want to make sure first off that our elderly citizens, those age 65 and older, get the vaccine first because that is where the biggest number of vulnerabilities really are."

Lines at clinics, pharmacies and other sites offering the flu vaccine swelled after British authorities announced October 5 they were suspending production of the vaccine at the Liverpool plant of Chiron Corp., an American company, due to contamination problems.

The secretary urged people "to be calm, and if there are lines, don't wait."

"Come back another day, and if the individual clinics or nursing homes don't have the vaccine right now, let us know," Thompson said.

"The worst thing for seniors to do is to wait in line and get sick while they are waiting in line. Please, just understand that we're on top of this thing, and we are doing everything we possibly can to protect you and we're going to be able to continue to do so."

Chiron had contracted to deliver to the United States 46 million to 48 million doses, nearly half of the country's projected need of 100 million doses.

The loss leaves Americans with a supply of about 54 million doses of vaccine made by Aventis Pasteur, based in Strasbourg, France, and 1 million to 2 million doses of a nasal form of the vaccine called FluMist, made by MedImmune Inc. of Mountain View, California.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said it's too soon to tell if there will be a flu crisis this year.

"Well, we're just at the beginning of the flu season, so we can't predict whether this is going to be a serious year or not," Gerberding said Monday. "We have 20 million more doses of flu vaccine to get out there, and our goal is to get those doses to the people who need it the most before the season really speeds up."

The shortage also has become an issue on the campaign trail, with Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry blaming the Bush administration for not paying attention to warning signs about possible shortages and the Bush campaign inferring that vaccine manufacturers are hindered by fears of lawsuits, something the campaign said Kerry would not move to fix.

"I'm sorry that this is becoming a political issue. This is really a health issue," Gerberding said. "I think the bottom line is that the administration has requested a great deal [of] increase in the support for influenza.

"We have a stockpile. We have more drugs than we've ever had to treat this condition. I feel like we are taking responsible steps, but we need to solve the problem with the vaccine manufacturing and that's a problem that's been 25 years in the making."

Gerberding said vaccine manufacturers need "a guaranteed market, they need a fair price and they need liability protection."

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