Unprecedented delays and uneven distribution of the flu vaccine -- complicated by alleged price gouging -- are causing alarm among health officials who warn of severe disease and even death among their most vulnerable patients.
Production problems among manufacturers have led to temporary shortages of the vaccine this season. Indiscriminate use and heightened demand even by healthy people concerned about the shortages have exacerbated supply problems.
On Friday, the American Medical Association formally condemned certain distributors for raising their prices as much as 500 percent.
"Medical price gouging is unethical and threatens the health of those who need the vaccination most," said Dr. Richard F. Corlin, president-elect of the association and a Santa Monica, Calif.-based gastroenterologist. "It is not an exaggeration to say that these ruthless business practices could result in serious illness or death."
At the same time, the California Medical Association released a statement saying it was "outraged at the profiteering and greed that has accompanied the distribution of this year's vaccine supply."
Many health experts said the flu season is not expected to peak for two months or more and that plenty of vaccine will reach the marketplace -- probably by late November or early December.
For now, however, just a third of the necessary supply has been distributed nationwide. Vaccination is considered particularly important for people over 65, nursing home residents, those suffering from chronic or debilitating diseases and women in their second or third trimesters of pregnancy.
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