The Flu in Review

Edition: May 2005 - Vol 13 Number 05
Article#: 2120
Author: Jeff Stevens

It was prior to last year’s HIDA Trade Show when we first heard about the shortage of flu vaccine, thanks to Chiron’s loss of licensure. At the time, there was a lot of discussion about the impact the shortage would have on the industry. A definite sense of panic, worry and frustration was in the air. What would the customers say? How would the public react?

So, now, several months later, what exactly did the restriction of flu shots mean to the average American? How was the industry affected? Following is what some stakeholders had to say about the 2004-2005 flu season.

First of all, the flu season got off to a slow start, if compared to last year’s outbreak. As a matter of fact, the mortality rate resulting from the 2003-2004 flu season was much higher than this year’s rate. The 2004-2005 flu had two strains of Influenza A that predominated the reported cases. The season started with primarily the Fujian strain, which peaked in February. At around the same time, a new California strain was being detected. It quickly spread throughout the United State and Canada, closing down several long-term care facilities and resulting in numerous fatalities. A decline was not detected until the week of March 20.

Perhaps the most notable change in behavior was an increase in hand washing, especially within the general population. The media repeatedly ran stories on the lack of vaccine and the imminent risk of infection, strongly recommending that people scrub their hands regularly and/or use instant hand sanitizer. Americans were also warned to cover their mouths when they coughed, so as not to spread germs.

Kelly Tino, market manager for Safetec, supported this added hygienic diligence. “We experienced a strong increase in the sale of our hand sanitizers,” says Tino.

Business growth was reported from some non-traditional customer groups, like schools and governments, as well as the expected sectors like acute and primary care. Tino says even children were carrying hand sanitizers with them.

“The purported vaccine shortage was not as serious as the media reported, but, despite that, we received a lot of calls from hospitals, looking for educational support, like posters or other awareness material,” says Patti Taylor, VP of sales and marketing for Gojo Industries Inc. Customers also looked for training programs to keep their employees on track with hand-washing protocols. Incidentally, Gojo also experienced a surge in demand for hand sanitizers, especially in November and December, the normal start of the flu season.

The Stevens Co. was able to successfully launch a flu protection kit called Go-Kit, which is now available through the NDC. Other attempts at conquering the flu were evident with companies like Kimberley-Clark, which introduced a new Kleenex tissue with antimicrobial properties. Another popular approach was to utilize a product like Flonase, which reduces the chance of sneezing. Certainly, none of these approaches could replace a flu shot, but people were willing to try anything to help reduce the risk.

From the distributor camp, the story is similar but comes with interesting decisions, like bowing out of the vaccine business altogether. Pharmaceutical Health Care will be telling customers to send their pre-book orders directly to Aventis.

“I lost enough sleep over this issue, with good customers blaming us for the shortage,” says Marty Walker, Pharmaceutical Health Care’s medical sales manager. On the upside, we managed to increase our hand sanitizer and hard surface wipe sales by 500 percent and our Quidel influenza test kits by 600 percent,” he adds.

The company also showed a notable increase in installations of hand sanitizer dispensers in doctor’s offices for those that lacked sufficient sink placements. “At least we are making better margin on these products to replace the divested flu shot business,” says Walker.

Akhil Agrawal of American Medical Depot relays similar customer comments. “Some of our clinic customers were pretty annoyed we could not get them their product,” he says. “We tried to educate them, eventually the press caught up, and they understood.”

Another dealer, who wishes to remain nameless, reported the flu hit them hard in another way. His small office had much of the staff out sick during February and March. A similar effect was noted with corporate customers, where productivity loss was dramatic. Much of the lost vaccine revenue was replaced with strong increases in hand sanitizers, Kleenex tissues, Tamiflu (a prescription preventative), and cough/cold medicine.

In the end, this flu season wasn’t nearly the problem it was thought to be, but it certainly did scare most people into action. And that action translated into greater sales, better margins and new product opportunities. It also increased public awareness and a willingness to take action.

Now if everyone can get over the paranoia of a pandemic flu, all should be fine. Assuming the Avian flu doesn’t find a way to jump from human to human, that is…

About the author:

Jeff Stevens is senior VP of The Stevens Co., a family-owned company and creator of the Go-Kit, www.go-kit.com.