Thursday, October 21, 2004


My colleague, Marty Levin, made an interesting comment to me today about the flu vaccine issue. He observed that the president is currently going around the country telling "healthy" people not to get a flu shot, so that people who need it more can get one. That's fine, publicly spirited, a call for sacrifice for the common good, etc. The problem is that its effect is probably the opposite of what is intended. By telling everyone that they should sacrifice so that other people can get a shot, it serves mainly to increase their priority that getting one has in their mind. While many people weren't thinking of getting a shot before they heard that there was a shortage, now that they've been asked not to, it's made people think, "hmmm, I should really get a shot" or "i might have put off thinking about it, but maybe I should get one before they run out." That is, encouraging sacrifice may have the opposite effect of what was intended. I'd be interested if any of our readers know of studies of strategies for controlling the use of vaccines in limited supply--do calls for voluntary restraint ever work? Is there evidence that they backfire? Does the government have any tools to formally limit who can get access to them?

The real policy question, of course, is why there is such a limited supply in the first place, and why it is so sensitive to the loss of a single supplier. Presumably it has to do with the limited potential for profit and/or liability issues involved with producing flu vaccine. Intelligent answers to these questions, minus political invective, will be edited and posted.


XYZ643 said...

I think the simplest answer in this case is the economic answer. The return from selling a flu vaccine is not sufficient to warrant the cost of producing and distributing. Either the return must be increased, ignoring shrill cries of price gouging, or the cost of production and distribution must be reduced, say by limiting damages in lawsuits or the beaurocratic hurdles that must be navigated to bring the vaccine to market. I grant that this may seem to be an overly simplistic argument, however I feel that the root cause of any scarcity of a manufactured item falls into this category.

salas said...

I think it has more to do with bureaucratic red tape. More flu vaccine is available, just not to Americans because it hasn't been approved by the US government. That's why people are going to Canada and Mexico to get their flu shots. It's the same reason a lot of prescription drugs are available in Canada for a lot cheaper than they're available in the US.