SC health department quickly makes more flu vaccine available

jholleman@thestate.comJanuary 29, 2013 

— The South Carolina health department reacted quickly this week to a shortage in the flu vaccine for infants, changing guidelines so quickly that physicians were pleasantly stunned.

The early peak of flu this season has prompted a shortage of the variations of the flu vaccine suitable for infants 6 months to 3 years old. Many pediatricians have run out of the vaccine purchased for their patients and can’t get more for weeks, if at all, said Debbie Greenhouse, a Columbia pediatrician and president of the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

But they still have supplies provided by the federal government only for children on Medicaid and supplies provided by the state government only for use for patients who fall through the cracks – those not covered by either private health insurance or Medicaid.

After Catherine Templeton, director of the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, made a speech at a gathering of pediatricians Saturday, Greenhouse asked if the state could make a one-time exception in the rules for its flu vaccine supply.

“The whole idea (for the state supply, in a program created in 2011) was to create access to the vaccine for those who didn’t have access,” Greenhouse said. “Historically, that all had to do with financial concerns.”

But now even those children with private health insurance had access problems. Could DHEC tweak the regulations to help them out?

Templeton promised to look into it. About 20 minutes later, Templeton “tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘We can make it happen,’ ” Greenhouse said.

A few minutes later, when Templeton told the crowd of the new flexibility in the regulations, “everyone in the room just sat there stunned,” Greenhouse said. One pediatrician asked Templeton to repeat what she had just said, just to make sure they were hearing correctly.

Late Monday, DHEC sent memos to physicians with details of the change allowing use of the state-funded vaccine for those with private health insurance. The change applies only to the flu vaccine, takes effect only once physicians have used up all of their privately funded flu vaccine and is in effect only through June 30.

“DHEC is grateful for the flexibility offered with state funding through the (state vaccine program) to be able to respond to this need for S.C.’s insured children,” the memo states.

This flu season appeared to have peaked in December, though Greenhouse fears a second peak based on several new cases in her practice this week.

Even at below-peak levels, the flu remains a major health concern. The most recent statistics from DHEC indicate 68 flu-related hospitalizations and three flu-related deaths in the state for the week ending Jan. 19. Those bring the season totals to 1,279 hospitalizations and 30 deaths.

Most of the hospitalizations and deaths involve either the elderly or the very young. That’s why Greenhouse recommends vaccination of every infant who comes through her office. Despite the supply shortage, she now has a vaccine for those children.

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