H5N1 virus

Lack of demand may mean costly flu vaccines go to waste

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 January, 2007, 12:00am

Thousands of doses of flu vaccine could go down the drain as the expected surge in local demand has failed to materialise.

The government ordered 390,000 flu jabs for its winter vaccination programme, which began on November 6 and was originally scheduled to run until the end of last month.

The order was roughly 90,000 more than last year.

The shots cost the government HK$28.4 million, more than double spent last winter as vaccine makers, including the government's main supplier Sanofi Pasteur, raised prices to HK$73 per shot, from HK$40 last winter, due to a surge in demand from the US and Europe.

But by the end of last month just 240,000 people had been vaccinated, while 50,000 doses of vaccine had been released to the private sector.

The Centre for Health Protection decided to extend the vaccination programme until the end of next month, hoping to use up the remaining stock of some 100,000 doses - costing HK$7.3 million. This is the first time the programme has been extended. By contrast, about 250,000 doses were administered by the government programme in 2005-06 and 200,000 in 2004-05 without the need for extension.

Last year, the government released 15,000 doses of vaccine to the private sector to meet a temporary shortage.

The slightly lower demand could be due to a mild flu season, experts said. The centre reported that flu activity 'remains at the baseline level'.

A centre spokeswoman said there were only a few influenza variations and most strains of flu were similar to those covered by the vaccine.

She declined to speculate on whether the government had overestimated demand. 'Our aim is to secure an adequate supply of influenza vaccine for those in need. We are monitoring the progress of the [extended] programme, which will last until the end of February.'

The seasonal flu vaccine does not protect against pandemic flu strains, but increased awareness of H5N1 bird flu has in the past led to people having inoculations for the normal flu. The World Health Organisation fears H5N1 could mutate and spark a flu pandemic.

Private GPs, meanwhile, have told the Hong Kong Medical Association they still had vaccines left, with the peak of the flu season coming to its end. 'It's January now and we are almost at the end of the peak season,' said Alvin Chan Yee-shing, a Medical Association council member. He said demand had waned because people were tired of hearing about bird flu.

'Almost every year they are told 'beware of bird flu' but nothing has happened,' he said.