Concerns About Vaccine Storage
Jun 07, 2012

Yesterday morning I woke to a message from a parent who was concerned about a report she saw on ABC News.
Apparently Good Morning America was recapping the Nightline investigation from the night prior which provided details of a government report which found doctors were improperly storing vaccines.  After watching the report this mother wondered whether the vaccines that she had hoped were protecting her child were going to be effective.  She also worried how this report may impact parents who were currently undecided about vaccinating their child.  She explains,

If I’m a parent wavering on immunizations and saw this segment – despite Dr. Besser emphasizing how important it is to immunize – all I would hear is “Vaccines are ineffective and dangerous because they’re improperly stored.”

From the language used in the first 30 seconds of the Nightline segment, which included phrases such as bad medicine, shocking revelation,  dangerous conditions, breaking investigation,  and alarming discovery, I would almost be surprised if parents weren’t panicked.  The follow-up piece on GMA was more of the same.  It’s clear that this type of media language can potentially illicit fear and hesitancy among parents.  However, I’m not sure it was truly called for.  While these are valid concerns that require a definite response, it’s important to put this in perspective, which appears to be what ABC News Medical Correspondent, Dr. Richard Besser attempted to do with his reassuring and reasonable responses.
He explains,

“I’m concerned that this is going to be misinterpreted.  This wasn’t about safety.  Vaccines that are stored improperly are still safe, but we’re not sure that they’re going to be fully effective.”

Both Dr. Richard Besser and Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, explained that while improper storage may result in a less than optimal immune response to a vaccine, it does not pose a safety concern.    
Quite frankly, research has shown that there are lots of factors that could result in a less than ideal immune response, even something as simple as administering Tylenol before a dose for example.  Therefore, while the investigation raises questions, it’s difficult to know what the overall impact is.
As Dr. Anne Schuchat explains, this report was a “wake up call”.

“Parents do need to know that the system is strong and that’s our responsibility and we have to make sure we’re improving things.”

When questioned as to how the public can feel confident amidst such concerning data, she responds,

“The most reassuring piece is what’s going on with disease – that most diseases that we vaccinate against are at record low levels, even the ones that we’re seeing outbreaks of would be a hundred times more common if we didn’t have such a heavily vaccinated population well protect by the vaccines. So we have lots of data that the vaccines are working. This is a warning sign that we can’t take that for granted and we need to improve the system.”

While that is reassuring, it reiterates the importance of community immunity.  If the immunity is compromised for one recipient, hopefully there are enough properly immunized people around them to restrict the spread of disease.  However, none of the samples that were improperly stored were tested to determine exactly how the storage may have impacted the vaccine efficacy, which leaves us wondering what the real implications are.
As far as providers go, it’s important to acknowledge their responsiblity here, as well as their challenges.  Critics often suspect that doctors profit greatly off vaccines.  However, doctors I’ve spoken to about this accusation explain how costly vaccine administration is to their practice.   Not only do they have to invest in an uncertain amount of inventory, they often eat the cost of vaccines that have expired.  Additionally, as this report suggests, they need to ensure they have the proper equipment, as well as adequate staff that are well-trained to administer vaccines and oversee the appropriate storage.
Perhaps doctors can be utilizing better technologies that ensure the temperature of the vaccines remains constant?  But at what cost would this come?
Despite the frequent criticism the government receives about vaccine safety, it’s important to note that this particular investigation was conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General and that the results have been made public in a new government report, further illustrating that vaccine policies are overseen by an open and elaborate check and balance system.  Personally, I appreciated hearing Dr. Schuchat respond to the finding of this report and admit to the challenges that vaccine storage present.  She even accepts responsibility, on behalf of the CDC, for making positive changes.

“We’ve really got to do a better job.…This is a challenge. A challenge to our doctors’ offices.  A challenge to the public health program. We’re committed to taking this seriously and improving the situation.”

Hopefully we’ll find that vaccines storage policies will be further monitored and scrutinized for compliance. However, we must recognize that these are costly and time-consuming investigations to perform and if we fail to invest the proper funds in public health, these kinds of investigations may not happen as often, or maybe even not at all.
As parents, we are empowered by this information and must insist that efforts be made to improve the situation.  We can start by addressing our concerns with our individual providers.
What other suggestions do you have to ensure better compliance with vaccine storage policies?  What are your thoughts on the government findings and what do you think this news coverage has communicated to the public?    

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