Letting Myself Off the Hook
ELDER MUSIC: Classical Again – Part 3 of 3

Vintage TGB: 2 November 2004

[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.


Coincidentally enough, I had my experience with the flu vaccine this week. I was totally oblivious to the fact there was a shortage with the seasonal flu vaccine. I knew I had a doctor’s appointment this past Wednesday that had been scheduled for at least a month and that was when I was going to get my flu shot. WRONG! That was the first thing they said to me as I walked through the clinic front door, “Hi Alan, hope you aren’t here to get a flu shot! We don’t have any more vaccine.”

They suggested trying some of the larger grocery outlets who have pharmacies and are giving shots so I stopped by the one I regularly shop at on the way home from the doctor’s office but they were out. Called the Health Department and they said they were holding a ‘mass clinic’ at a large parking lot downtown the next day administering limited supplies of both H1N1 and seasonal vaccines. One can only imagine what a mad house that will be….. and might I add, in the pouring rain.

But fortunately my doctor’s office called later in the day and said they had by chance run across a Kroger Store some five miles from me that still had some limited doses of the vaccine and would be giving the shots that day until they ran out. I got my butt in gear and got over there immediately and fortunately got my shot.

Anyway, point is there has been nothing said whatsoever on the news about seasonal flu vaccine shortages that I had heard. I was really aggravated because I could have easily gotten my shot earlier but wasn’t the least bit concerned. I just always try to wait until early November because I have always understood it is better to get your flu shot later in the year to ensure you are still well protected in February and March when the flu virus is most active.

So ‘DITTO’ on your subject comments this morning….


I'd never heard anything about getting flu shots late in the season and I always try to get mine early because who knows when a bug might float my way. For 20 years or more, I haven't gotten the flu, so I guess it works for me.

What I'm careful about in recent years, however, is that I don't rely on the doctor because as with you this year, sometimes they run out.

I always go to a city flu clinic, figuring they have a bunch of doses for the scheduled day. And I always arrive an hour before the start time (I bring a book) to be sure to get my dose. That's worked as well here in Maine for the past three years as it did in New York City.

But this year was different. I arrived at my early, appointed time to find myself to be about number 100 in line. And this was for seasonal flu, not swine. I keep wondering if the authorities are overplaying the flu. They give us numbers of how many have swine flu, but they don't compare the numbers to seasonal flu in past years - or, at least, I haven't seen any such reports.

For what it's worth, I'm not getting the swine flu shot because, from many reports, few elders are getting it and when they do, it doesn't hit as hard as with younger people. So I figure the vaccine should go to young people and those with compromised immune systems first.

Very prophetic!
Like you, I had a six-week bout many years ago, and became a believer in the flu shot,real quick.
Belief isn't enough this year. It looks like they sent along a one-day supply to this end of Massachusetts in early October and when that ran out, that was it. My doctor had enough for about 25 people, so gave that to high risk patients, and other doctors have told me the same. I've called all the drug stores, senior centers and even the university, and all have said they've been told they won't be getting any vaccine. I even looked on the state website. Nada. We're all sitting ducks for any flu that passes through.
One preschool in Greenfield has closed and there were 7o cases, presumbably H1N1, at a nearby private high school last week.
My husband and I just hope we've built up enough immunity over the years from the flu and the flu shots, to ward off the virus.

I didn't realize how lucky I was to be able to get my seasonal flu shot two weeks ago. The TV is rife with stories about H1N1 flu vaccine shortages, but until I read your post I was unaware that there was a shortage of seasonal flu vaccine.

This should be investigated to the max and the drug manufacturers should be penalized for not making more vaccine in a timely fashion. They were aware that there would be the demand.

I too didn't realize how lucky I was: my HMO has a very efficient flu shot assembly line set up in the lobby -- everyone who comes in can get in line if willing and it takes about 5 minutes, max. I did it several weeks ago, for seasonal flu. Story here. It must be that there's not so much a shortage of that one as maldistribution. Kaiser may be favored in getting it as they are touted as "good providers" in the current discussions.

The swine flu vaccine is another story. The feds do the distribution on the seasonal vaccine, but for some reason they decided to do the swine flu thru state departments of health. Many of these were inexperienced and apparently are making a hash of it -- at the same time there isn't very much of it. In this house we believe my partner and I got mild cases in July, so I'm not worried about that one.

I got mine in mid-September at my doctor's office unaware there would be a problem at all. I was only getting it early because I was flying to the east coast Oct 1 and my reumatologist said I should get it within the 10-day period of flying because of my autoimmune problem. I'm glad I listened; had no idea there was a shortage brewing. What happened????

Having had some strain or another of the flu four times in my life (earliest in 1948, latest in 1987), I have (like Ronni) obtained a shot each year since I became old enough to qualify for being "at risk". This year, Hunky Husband and I got our shots at a clinic on 9/2/2009. Like Ronni, we will await our turn on the H1N1. With the shortages, they may not get around to us oldsters; but, that's life.

I hope your computer is feeling its bytes today. Yes, this article is still true. For a long time I was one who bought one of her meds in Mexico.....but they were all outdated.

Now that my "Medicare and YOU 2010" booklett has arrived and I near my signup date for Medicare, I quiver a bit anticipating the changes in my meds one more time. Changes in meds are never for the good, I've discovered. I'm frightened by the thought of paying that huge gap in my Medicare prescription coverage at a time when my husband is still unemployed.

Life is going to get interesting.

This could have been written today. I hope in another five years you can re-publish this, and we'll all say, "What were we thinking? I'm so glad things have changed."

Yes, this sounds like it could have been written this month! As I've turned 50 this year, my daughter's classmates are dropping out from swine flu, and I am having to take my mother for medical visits a lot lately, I tried to get a regular flu shot only to find them few and far between. I gladly waited 2 hours at a Walgreens clinic today that did not advertise they had shots and got one of the last before closing. Thank goodness I brought a book.

As much as things change, they remain the same.

I never got the seasonal flu shot until a few years before my husband's death. His immune system was greatly compromised and he asked me if I would. Also, I was working at the local hospital then as our group contracted to help them, and one of the in-house nurses took me along with her where they gave me the shot. Since then have always gone to a "drive thru" clinic the hospital has offered annually.

This year there have been repeated last minute cancellations of scheduled seasonal flu shots in most all the local venues that have offered them. Just happened to have appt. with my physician who asked if I had shot yet. Heard nurse telling him there was a shortage when she'd tried to get more, but would see if she could find one for me. She did, I had the shot.

I've decided for now not to get the Swine flu vaccine partly for the reason you mention. My dtr and granddtr in prime age groups to contract the Swine flu have just recovered from it. They experienced some pretty severe symptoms with it -- additionally, body aches all over, body-racking deep coughing, temp spiking suddenly after it seemed to be back to normal which was a concern for the 14 yr old. Think one of the concerns can be the virus moving into the lower respiratory system and there were indications that was happening with my dtr, but, fortunately, she saw her Dr. in time who immediately put them both on Tamiflu.

Swine flu was very prevalent in VA the end of Aug. before school started and with school children. The area just now is receiving the regular seasonal flu shot, and may have some for Swine -- nasal spray (not my preference) and a limited supply of the Swine vaccine.

Think people are affected differently with some minimal to mild symptoms, others experience more.

I could not believe this was from five years ago. It sounds like such current news. There is a flu season just about every year, and the H1N1 (swine) flu has been a concern for a few years now. How is it that with "the best health care system in the world," we can't seem to be ready for it on a regular basis? I know strains are different year to year, but really that doesn't seem to be a full explanation to me. We may have a great health care system (at least according to those most resistant to changing it), but we certainly do not have the most healthy population in the world.

Please research the vaccine before rushing to get it. You could start here:

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