[Each Saturday, a vintage story from the Time Goes By archive is published here. They correspond to a date of approximately five years ago – sometimes updated, sometimes not.]
Vaccine Shortages and Drug Prices
In late August or early September, Crabby Old Lady saw a small item in the press somewhere that there might be a shortage of flu vaccine in the United States this year.
Crabby has taken a flu shot for the past 12 or 15 years except one year when, for reasons she no longer recalls, she didn’t get around to it. The flu got her that year and she was sick – sick in bed, fevered, aching, delirious and non-functional – for two entire weeks. It was an additional month before she felt fully healthy again. She has never missed another flu shot.
This year, with that tiny, little news item in mind, Crabby was at the door when it opened on the first morning the vaccine was available from the New York City Health Department. Others have not been so lucky as Crabby; the next day, the shortage was announced.
Since then, there have been continual reports of elders in long lines in the hot sun with nothing more useful than hope that the vaccine will not have run out when their turn comes. Hospitals do not have enough vaccine for their patients.
Several towns have held lotteries - think of it, lotteries for a proven medication that saves thousands of lives a year - for the few doses they have. And scalpers have been charging 10 and 20 times the going price. Crabby has one friend, HIV-positive, who cannot find a flu shot at any price after weeks of searching. He is terrified; if he gets the flu, he may die.
Now, according to a story by Gardiner Harris, it appears more than just flu vaccine is regularly in short supply:
“Each of these drugs, and dozens of others, are in shortage in the United States right now. On any given day, 50 to 80 drugs, many of them life-saving, may be difficult or impossible to find. Some patients die waiting for them, or because a frustrated doctor substituted another drug without having adequate training.
“The larger story behind the flu vaccine shortage is that drug supply disruptions in the United States have become routine.”
- - The New York Times, 31 October 2004
In addition, drugs in general are so expensive in the United States that people – mostly older folks on fixed incomes – travel to Canada and, mentioned in the press to a lesser degree, Mexico to get their physician-prescribed medications.
“U.S. citizens regularly cross the border to buy discount prescription drugs at pharmacies in Mexican border towns, where they can save up to 60 percent on drugs ranging from antibiotics to Viagra.”
- - money.cnn.com, 22 October 2004
If that is not bad enough, officials repeatedly appear on network and cable news broadcasts to warn against buying drugs in other countries because, they say, those drugs might not be safe. Somehow, Crabby believes, if U.S. citizens were dropping dead in droves from “foreign” drugs, we would know about it.
It is unconscionable that these shortages and high prices can happen in a country that touts itself as having the finest healthcare system in the world - a dubious statement when the United States is listed at number 48 in life expectancy at birth by the 2003 CIA World Fact Book.
How can all this be, you may ask? Crabby will explain: it happens when the manufacture and distribution of medicines are left to the free market.
But drugs and vaccines are not automobiles. They are not television sets, computers, shoes nor any other kind of consumer product. They are life-giving, life-preserving miracles without which we would still have killer diseases such as polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, small pox and measles, the fear of which Crabby can remember from her childhood.
Other diseases that were deadly in her youth are now, if not yet preventable or curable, at least controllable - with drugs created by modern science. It is shameful than anyone in a country as rich as ours must go without needed medications or seek them in other countries.
Health is not a commodity and that is why, in other, more enlightened countries, governments do not allow the market to decide availability and price of medicines as though they were pork bellies.
Crabby Old Lady believes it would be an excellent legacy for future generations if older folks would make it a priority to lobby our representatives in the coming years for a saner, national health policy.