FRIDAY, Jan. 11, 2019 (HealthDay News) -- Problems with flu vaccine distribution in the United States may cost lives and pose a serious threat in the event of a flu pandemic, researchers warn.
However, a computer model shows that proposed changes to the current distribution system could save thousands of lives, said study co-leader Pinar Keskinocak.
She and her colleagues recommend replenishing flu vaccine stocks in regions where they are being used up and not replenishing them in areas where vaccines are piling up because people aren't getting flu shots.
Restocking vaccine supplies where they are actually being used would have a population-wide benefit by increasing the total number of vaccinated people. They would then be less likely to get sick and to infect others, reducing the overall flu wave, explained Keskinocak, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology School of Industrial and Systems Engineering.
This change to flu vaccine distribution could save thousands of lives in a regular flu season, and even more in a flu pandemic, she said in a university news release.
About 80,000 Americans died of the flu during the 2017-2018 influenza season -- far more than the 19,300 murdered in 2017, the investigators pointed out.
"Even seasonal flu kills thousands to tens of thousands of people each year, so we would benefit immediately" from updates to the flu vaccine distribution system, Keskinocak said.
"In a pandemic, nearly no one would have natural immunity, so the death toll could be significantly high if we don't improve vaccine coverage," she added.
The suggested changes could reduce leftover vaccine by about 20 percent, leading to significant cost savings. And data about areas that were not resupplied could be used to conduct public health campaigns encouraging more people in those areas to get immunized, the researchers said.
However, they noted that there is a lack of data in the U.S. vaccine distribution system.
"Surprisingly few states have systems in place that tell them how much vaccine has been administered where and how much is still left in inventory at provider locations," said study co-author Julie Swann, from North Carolina State University.
The findings were published recently in the journal PLOS ONE.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on flu vaccination.
SOURCE: Georgia Institute of Technology, news release