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Health care brought home

Editorial for 10-21-2004

Last Thursday morning, right here in White Salmon, local citizens may have gotten a glimpse at the future of our health care system, and it was pretty grim.

Dozens of local residents lined up in front of the doors to Hi-School Pharmacy, trying to ensure they could get a flu shot. The line began to form before 8 a.m. -- more than an hour before the pharmacy opened its doors. As the minutes went by the line grew and grew, until it stretched all the way to the back of the parking lot. Some of the people were in wheelchairs; others had canes or walkers.

It was a sad scene. The people waiting there were among the most vulnerable in our society, yet they had to stand out in the brisk morning air and hope there would be enough flu vaccine to go around for everyone.

We're lucky it was a sunny and relatively warm day, or those people -- who are among those most susceptible to health problems -- might have had to stand out in the rain and cold to wait.

The pharmacy staff did a great job with what they had. In just over four hours, 220 local residents got their flu shots. Unfortunately, the supply ran out and some had to be turned away. Hi-School Pharmacy is working to secure additional doses, but demand is high across the nation and it's not certain more can be found.

With the shortage, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention are urging that only those at "high risk" get flu shots this year. The primary categories considered to be at high risk include: adults 65 or older, children between 6-23 months; people with chronic medical conditions; and women who will be pregnant during the influenza season.

The shortage of flu vaccines this year was caused by a tainted supply coming from a drug manufacturing plant in Great Britain. The contamination caused the loss of approximately 46 million doses that were bound for America.

Chiron Corp., the company that had the contaminated vaccines, was expected to supply about half of our nation's needs. The old saying, "Don't put all your eggs in one basket" almost literally applies here. Why did we rely so heavily on any one company, especially one based overseas? Indeed, why are we outsourcing our health care in the first place?

And where are the backup plans? The influenza virus is extremely serious. It kills about 36,000 Americans every year, and half a million people around the globe. Surely, a nation as great as ours would have a contingency in case there was a fire or some other catastrophe at the plant where the flu vaccine was being produced. But no.

The British Department of Health said it warned the United States about the contamination problem at the vaccine supplier on Aug. 26. Yet U.S. health officials did not announce the looming shortage publicly until Oct. 6.

The reactions of the two governments in itself also is telling: The British, faced with its own shortage, aggressively made contingency plans and secured another 2.2 million doses of flu vaccine from other suppliers. The United States, on the other hand, took a different approach: it asked most of its citizens not to get a shot this year.

That is not a reassuring approach to health care. If that's the best we can do, we're all going to be in trouble sooner or later.

The flu vaccine crisis is just one more symptom of a sick health care system. A cure is needed soon, and one good place to start will come at the ballot box on Nov. 2.



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