Associated Press reports yesterday that on midnight of June 30, the expiration date will pass for millions of doses of flu vaccine that went unused this year and they will accordingly be destroyed. I can’t help wondering how that happens – do they just dump it down the drain? Is it set on fire? Where does it go? If anyone knows, I would love to know the answer.
But the destruction of this batch of flu vaccine raises some other, more serious questions. First is, why can’t the number of flu vaccines match the number of people who want them? It seems a terrible waste of money and resources when these numbers don’t match. One need only cast back into time a short while, when the Chiron manufacturing facility in the United Kingdom was closed by British medical authorities and the resulting shortage in the United States of flu vaccine caused canceled vaccination programs by employers and schools, and saw the elderly waiting in long lines with lawn chairs just so that they could get a vaccination. The year before that, the AP article states, Wyeth had to destroy one-third of its supply in 2002-2003 at a staggering cost. Now a few years later, the fish are getting the leftovers.
One reason for a surplus one year and a shortage another has to do with hiccups in the manufacturing process and a lack of ability to predict the exact number of doses that are going to be available in any given year. That process is beyond my scope, but the need for better coordination is obvious.
But I do think one aspect to the problem is one involving communications. The Associated Press article cites the fact that demand this year was down. There is an opportunity for flu manufacturers and/or government to engage communications in putting together a social marketing campaign that does some credible research into what motivates people to get flu vaccines and what keeps them from coming in – and then to develop campaigns and messaging that do what a social marketing campaign does that advertising cannot do – change people’s behavior. Speaking for myself, I have never in my life had a flu vaccination. What messages would motivate people to get the vaccine, even late in the season when it appears that supply will hold out? It is naive at best to believe that banners announcing flu vaccinations alone will drive the audience to act and all sides win if there is a greater understanding that matches the supply with marketplace behavior.