08 October 2004
GPs in Northern Ireland have been forced to cancel their flu immunisation clinics after supplies were affected by the suspension of a major supplier.
Doctors' leaders hit out at the government's management of the vaccine supply problem, which they claim could have been prevented with proper planning.
Chiron, which produces one in six of the 14 million flu vaccines used in the UK, had its licence suspended for three months by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) over manufacturing problems.
The MHRA said shortfalls would be urgently addressed and an extra 1.2 million doses were on order for the end of October.
Dr Peter Holden, of the British Medical Association GPs' committee, said: 'The question is: can they make up the 2.4 million vaccines between now and Christmas? If flu comes early, we probably won't be able to get to everyone.'
This week the annual flu vaccination round was launched by the Department of Health in England. Fronted by footballer Paul Scholes, the campaign is encouraging people over 65 and those with chronic conditions such as asthma and diabetes to protect themselves against the illness.
In Northern Ireland, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety made 60,000 supplies of the vaccine available to enable the vaccination campaign to start on October 4.
But the BMA said this was too little, too late. Dr Eugene Deeny, treasurer of its Northern Irish GP committee, said: '[The department] neglected to advise GPs as to where, when or how these supplies could be obtained.'
He added that 60,000 vaccines were only a 'drop in the ocean'.
Northern Ireland chief medical officer Henrietta Campbell said: 'We expect the full supply of vaccines to be in place within three weeks, which should mean the normal flu immunisation programme will not be delayed.'
Practices have been instructed to prioritise appointments to ensure that those most at risk are vaccinated first. But this has further enraged doctors.
'The department blithely asserts that… doctors will prioritise patients most at risk. This is quite a challenge when the at-risk group itself is so large and the supply so small,' Deeny said.