Without the coveted flu shot …
An annual rite of autumn at many Central Iowa businesses, the in-house inoculation clinics that make it easier for employees to stay healthy and maintain their productivity through the influenza season, has come to a feverish halt. The flu shot has become more coveted than Iowa’s swing voters.
The Iowa Department of Public Health has responded appropriately to the flu vaccine shortage, triggered when British regulators shut down drug-maker Chiron Corp.’s manufacturing operations in Liverpool for three months, halting production of about half of the U.S. flu vaccine supply, or 48 million doses. Iowa has received about 300,000 doses of the vaccine so far, not nearly enough to vaccinate the 1 million Iowans the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates are at risk of catching the flu.
For most of us, influenza is a minor inconvenience, uncomfortable for a few days, but certainly not life threatening. But for 36,000 Americans annually, it’s a death sentence. In the short term, protecting the nation’s most vulnerable citizens requires sacrifice on the part of healthy Americans, but a longer-term solution is needed to take some of the fragility out of the vaccine delivery system.
When vaccine supplies are adequate, the CDC recommends that everyone get a flu shot. If doing so is in the public interest, why has the number of manufacturers willing to produce the vaccine shrunk to two – Chiron and Pennsylvania-based Aventis Pasteur – in the past decade? The economics of the vaccine market are tricky, demanding a complex answer that encompasses regulation, liability and profits margins. Pharmaceutical companies make only cents off the vaccine, so they’re concentrating more on the development of blockbuster drugs that yield higher profits, one of the consequences of a free-market health-care delivery system. So should the government get into the vaccine-producing business? There’s no easy answer, but the bureaucrats in Washington need to sort it out.
Until they do, the best way to protect your business from productivity losses brought on by an increase in absenteeism – estimated at anywhere from $12 billion to $20 billion nationwide – is to remember what your mother told you: Stay home when you’re ill to reduce the risk of infecting co-workers. Wash your hands often. Cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing. Find an alternative greeting to the handshake during the flu season. And don’t be too stingy with your sick-leave policies.