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Children at risk because vaccines in short supply



Published: Sun, February 24, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



A year ago, tetanus shots had to be rationed because of a vaccine shortage, and doctors and hospitals were stunned to realize they would have to limit tetanus shots to only those who were severely injured or burned. But the problems in vaccine production that should have been resolved in the ensuing 12 months remain -- and they've gotten worse. Now, there's an inadequate supply of vaccines to protect children against measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, chickenpox, meningitis and tetanus -- still.

In the United States, where more money is spent on health care than anywhere else in the world and where pharmaceutical companies have virtual monopolies on many drugs and vaccines, the inability to vaccinate this nation's children is an outrage.

As a result of the shortages, the Ohio Health Department has been forced to require local health departments to reduce or delay vaccinating children. It's a story echoing around the country.

Merck and Co., the sole producer in the United States of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, admits to "two voluntary interruptions in our manufacturing operations at one production facility," explaining that one interruption was in response to issues raised by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the other was the result of scheduled modifications Merck made to its facility.

Interruptions: We wonder if they've experienced the same "interruptions" in producing the five products which helped boost their sales volume in 2001 to $47.7 billion and for which they are spending millions to advertise to consumers, although they're only available by prescription. Thanks to double-digit sales increases for such drugs as Zocor, Vioxx, Fosamax and Singlair, Merck's net income grew 7 percent to $7.2 billion last year.

Between the exorbitant prices that the nation's elderly must pay for needed prescription medicines and now the shortages of vaccines to protect the well-being of the youngest citizens, Americans are increasingly being held hostage to an industry that has been unable to balance the interests of stockholders with the interests of public health.

When the chorus gets loud enough, federal and state legislators will be forced to enact regulatory action -- despite the vast amounts poured into their campaigns by pharmaceeutical companies.

A health care system where vaccines are in short supply and the elderly cannot afford their medicine would be an embarrassment to any other industrialized nation. It should be here as well.




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