Even as the US struggles to stock up on influenza vaccines this year, Germany can boast of more than sufficient supplies of flu shots. The only problem is the population's unwillingness to take them.
Germans aren't too needle-happy when it comes to influenza
Health experts in Germany are confident that the country is well-equipped to deal with this year's influenza season and avoid crisis scenarios prompted by a shortage of flu shots like the one currently raging in the United States.
Susanne Stöcker, a spokeswoman at the Paul Ehrlich Institue (PEI), which is responsible for the approval and monitoring of the vaccines, told news agency AFP on Thursday that Germany had around 20 million influenza vaccines for this year, four million more than last year.
No US-like situations
In the United States, where influenza kills 36,000 Americans in an average year, only half the numbers of flu shots that are needed are currently available.
The squeeze follows the closure of a factory of major vaccine supplier Chipron Corp. in Liverpool by the British government due to contamination. As a result, the US is estimated to face a crunch of around 48 million flu doses.
Stöcker said scarcity of flu shots such as in the United States was not likely to occur in Germany. That's because unlike in the United States where one national authority is responsible for centrally ordering the shots, vaccine producers in Germany can bring their shots, which have previously been approved, on to the market via wholesalers and pharmacies, Stöcker told daily Berliner Zeitung. At present, there are nine such companies manufacturing influenza shots in Germany.
Stöcker also ruled out that the lack of flu shots in the US would trigger panic buying by the Americans elsewhere and thus cause a worldwide shortage. "First, the vaccine producers are bound to their customers through contracts," Stöcker said. "Second, the production of the influenza vaccine takes three months," she added, saying that the US could only expect vaccine supplements by January.
Experts warn of high death toll
Influenza also known as flu, is caused by a virus that mainly attacks the upper respiratory tract. It is characterized by a sudden onset of high fever, headache and cough, sore throat, and rhinitis. Most people recover within one to two weeks without requiring any medical treatment.
In the very young, the elderly and people suffering from medical conditions such as lung diseases, diabetes, cancer, kidney or heart problems, influenza poses a serious risk. In these people, the infection may lead to severe complications of underlying diseases, pneumonia and death.
According to the World Health Organization, influenza viruses evolve rapidly, changing their antigenic characteristics, so that vaccines need to be modified each year to be effective against currently circulating influenza strains.
Experts in Germany predict a hike in cases of the deadly influenza virus in the coming weeks following a relatively mild outbreak last year.
The country recently registered its first influenza case this year. Andrea Grüber of the Marburg-based working group Influenza told news agency AP this week that a Munich-based man had caught the virus during a trip to Spain.
If the cases followed their usual development pattern, experts say Germany could expect an influenza-related death toll of 5,000 to 8,000 this year. If however, this year turns out to be as bad as the 2002/03 influenza season, the death toll could be as high as 20,000 to 30,000, they warn.
Germans not taking danger seriously
Despite the staggeringly high numbers, not many Germans seem to be taking the threat seriously.
According to a study carried out by Berlin's Robert Koch Institut last November, the average influenza vaccination rate in Germany was a mere 23.7 percent. Susanne Stöcker of PEI said that one of the main reasons for Germans' seeming reluctance to take the flu shots was their false understanding of the danger.
"People often mistake dangerous influenza for the largely harmless normal flu with cough, cold and fever," Stöcker said. This carefree attitude had made influenza one of the most underestimated illnesses, Stöcker added.
However, figures show that high-risk groups such as those over the age of 60, seem to be coming to their senses thanks to information campaigns.
The Robert Koch Institut study showed that those over 60 were comparatively well-protected against influenza by last November with 58 percent in eastern Germany and 35 percent in the West having taken flu shots.
Still, health experts have stepped up warnings underlining the need to get vaccinated. Andrea Grüber of the Influenza Working Group minced no words this week. "Now is definitely the time to get a shot," she said.