Hib cases rise during vaccine shortage

Minnesota health officials are drawing a link between the shortage of Merck's Hib childhood vaccine and an increase in that disease, which can cause meningitis and pneumonia. They are reporting five cases of Hib, including one death, for 2008; that's the highest level since the early 1990s, when Hib vaccination grew widespread.

As you know, Merck stopped making the Hib vaccine in late 2007, after discovering that its equipment had become contaminated. That left Sanofi-Aventis as the only supplier of the childhood shot. When the shortage began, the CDC advised doctors to defer the final booster in the three-or four-dose Hib series.

Now, two of the five Hib cases in Minnesota occurred in children who hadn't completed the series of shots; the other three arose in unvaccinated children. One CDC official told the Wall Street Journal that the agency is worried the shortage could be causing a drop in "herd immunity," in which unvaccinated children are protected from disease if there's a critical mass of vaccinated people in the community. Minnesota's cluster of cases might be isolated now, but "it might be the beginning of a worse trend in other places," she said.

Merck says it plans to get its Hib vaccine back onto the market by the middle of this year. The company had to modify its manufacturing process, and the changes have to be approved by the FDA before it can reintroduce the shot.

- read the WSJ story

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