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CDC Defends Distribution of H1N1 Vaccine to Employers

By Aliah D. Wright  11/12/2009
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A federal health official told members of Congress recently that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not decide who gets the H1N1 vaccine. That decision is left to states and local health officials, who “know best” how to distribute it.

The question came up during a U.S. Senate hearing on H1N1 and paid sick days on Nov. 10, 2009.

Congressional leaders had extensive questions for Rear Adm. Dr. Anne Schuchat, assistant surgeon general director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases for the CDC, after media reports surfaced that Wall Street bankers and prisoners at Guantanamo Bay received the vaccine ahead of those most at risk of dying from the disease—including pregnant women and infants.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Senate Committee on Health Education, Labor and Pensions, asked, “What was the thinking in those cases?”

“Misinformation is rampant,” Schuchat responded. “The Department of Defense has a vaccine for active-duty personnel, and the information about detainees [getting the shots] was not correct,” she said.

“The CDC distributes vaccines to places that the states and city health departments designate, and they know best how to direct it,” she said. “Many adults are vaccinated in the workplace,” she added, hence bankers on Wall Street being able to get the prized vaccine much in the same way they get seasonal flu vaccine—by ordering it directly from local health departments, who get it from the CDC.

Federal health officials have since urged local health departments to make sure that those most at risk—infants and their caregivers, pregnant women, health care workers, children and adults under 65 with medical issues, and people 24 and younger—get the vaccine first.

While vaccine shortages likely will continue, Schuchat testified that tens of millions of doses have become available for ordering and that millions more become available each week. In early November 2009, 41.1 million doses of the flu vaccine were available for states to order, Schuchat said. “One-quarter is the nasal spray.”

Senators noted that only one of the five facilities that produce the vaccine is located in the United States and that this impacts vaccine availability.

“Most of those companies produce overseas,” she said. “This is not an issue that changes overnight.”

She urged senators to keep in mind that H1N1 “disproportionately affects younger people ages 25 to 60” as well as pregnant women and people with chronic illnesses. “Those people could easily be reached through their employers,” she said. “These states and cities know now to get the vaccine into the paths of people.”

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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