Vaccination saturation

As the nationwide panic over H1N1—or swine flu—subsides, communities across Montana that scrambled for vaccine doses in 2009 face an unexpected situation: Many find themselves overdosed.

Missoula County administered nearly 20,000 doses of the swine flu vaccine since last October, but still has 13,000 doses in storage. County officials in the Bitterroot note a similar surplus of H1N1 vaccine—roughly 5,300 of the 9,000 doses they received from the state remain unused. Ravalli County Public Health Director Judy Griffin says her staff is desperate to make use of its supply.

"A lot of times, it can be out of sight, out of mind," Griffin says. "We don't have any cases right now, but we did last fall. It was all over the news, people were coming in to get the vaccine...When it falls off the radar it's hard to get the public's attention back."

The demand for immunization has dropped drastically. Last fall, hundreds could be seen waiting in line for the vaccine. Now patients are few and far between. Missoula County Health Promotion Director Greg Oliver says he's unsure if that will change anytime soon.

"The official speculation nationally is that it's unclear whether there will be a next wave of H1N1," Oliver says. "There's a debate going on, and where everyone seems to land is they just don't know."

The issue is hardly unique to western Montana. Oliver says the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, which supplied counties with the free vaccine, has its own large surplus. Counties around the state stopped requesting additional doses months ago and likely won't need more.

With thousands of doses just sitting in refrigerators, the question becomes one of shelf life. Griffin says much of Ravalli County's surplus doesn't expire until 2011, but her staff has already had to throw out numerous expired doses.

"How much of it will last until next season and how useful that'll be is a good question," Oliver says.

This story was updated on Feb. 16.
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