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The flu and you: Good luck, kid

Other editors say

Bush, Kerry seem blindsided by loss of half of America's flu-shot supply

Los Angeles Times

How can any government be considered effective if it can't provide protection for its citizens against a public health danger as serious and predictable as the flu? That question apparently hasn't occurred to President Bush or Sen. John F. Kerry, who both seemed stumped when asked in Wednesday's debate to explain why the closure of a single plant in Britain had cut America's flu vaccine supply by half.

Kerry dodged the question completely. Bush, after announcing that he will skip his own flu shot (is that really a good idea for the U.S. president?), said the problem arose when U.S. regulators prohibited contaminated medicine from being imported from a company out of England. In fact, it was British regulators shuttering the Liverpool plant of an American company, Chiron, after they discovered contamination with a bacterium that can sicken or kill people with poor immune systems.

Bush and Kerry, if they'd been following the front pages, could have started by calling for investigations, which Congress seems to be gearing for. They could have asked states to prevent vaccine price gouging by distributors. Instead, they seemed blindsided.

The Food and Drug Administration, which has blocked legislators' attempts to let patients import U.S.-made drugs from Canada on the grounds that it can't adequately inspect pharmacies there, says it relied on Chiron for information about its plant and had no idea that the facility was in danger of being shut down. Yet on Aug. 25, Chiron reported that 4 million doses of the vaccine had become contaminated, and U.S. officials took no action.

On Thursday, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said he had dispatched an FDA team to Chiron's facility. But where were those inspectors two months ago? Thirteen months ago, the federal Institute of Medicine issued a report saying flu vaccine shortages were inevitable because the nation's production and distribution system was so fragile. Again, no action.

— Drug companies don't make much money on vaccines. If vaccine production is going to remain in private hands, which is another issue worth exploring, the government will have to pay to attract more manufacturers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should also recommend that everyone get annual flu shots, which would increase and stabilize demand as well as cut economic losses from flu. Research into speeding up vaccine production needs additional funding, which the White House has approved but Congress hasn't released.

If old-fashioned public health measures like hand-washing and staying home while sick are effective, even partially, this year, Americans can thank themselves. But the government owes its people more by next year. Mr. Kerry? Mr. Bush? Want to try that question again?