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Finger-pointing on flu vaccine

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The flu vaccine shortage might not be good fodder for the upcoming presidential election, a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll suggests.

More than 77% of the public place a great deal of the blame on drug companies and federal health officials, assigning less blame to President Bush and the group he says is responsible for pushing out vaccine makers: trial lawyers.

In the poll of 776 adults this past weekend, 47% blamed drug companies a ''great deal,'' and 31% blamed them a ''moderate amount.'' Federal health officials were assigned a great deal of blame by 30% of respondents and moderate blame by 37%.

Only 18% placed great blame on trial lawyers and 17% on Bush, which is statistically equal given the poll's 4-point margin of error.

Experts on infectious diseases say responsibility for the shortage goes beyond any single group.

''The system has failed, clearly,'' says Joe Dalovisio, chairman of infectious disease at Ochsner Clinic Foundation in New Orleans and former president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

''Market forces are not working'' to encourage more drug companies to manufacture vaccines, he says.

Early this month, vaccine maker Chiron announced it would be unable to supply up to 48 million doses because its license had been suspended in Britain because of safety concerns. That left only Aventis Pasteur, which is making 58 million shots, and Med-Immune, which is producing about 3 million doses of nasal spray vaccine. That's still short of the 100 million doses that had been expected for this flu season.

Vaccines are difficult to make, subject to liability claims and relatively low-profit products, Dalovisio says, so it's no mystery why companies are not hurrying to produce them. ''People don't understand the system, so everything wrong is (because of) drug companies or the government.'' What health authorities might have done to prevent the shortage is not clear, although some legislators are trying to find out. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., in a letter Tuesday to Lester Crawford, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, accused the agency of withholding documents that could answer the question. Waxman said he has information that the FDA is delaying delivery of documents requested by Congress and the media until after the presidential election.

The FDA said it was evaluating Waxman's letter and had no immediate response.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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