Got the flu?

Oct. 26, 2004
The vaccine shortage may be a wakeup call for maintenance managers
By Lisa GreenbergFlu season peaks between December and March in the United States, but can be unpredictable, so says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Apparently, our supply of flu vaccine is in flux as well.The public is learning all it ever wanted to know about influenza facts and figures because one manufacturer, Chiron Vaccines, a division of Chiron Corp., Emeryville, Calif., was unable to deliver its shipment of Fluvirin for this flu season from its Liverpool, England, plant. The United Kingdom’s Medicines and Heathcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) on Oct. 5 suspended the company’s license to manufacture Fluvirin, setting off a panic in this sensitive election-year climate.As it turns out, Chiron was to provide 50% of the flu vaccine Americans require to stifle the insidious flu bug. It’s the only known medical defense for the familiar virus that sneaks into warm, closed up offices, train cars, airplanes and homes to replicate itself and make you sick.We are now confronted with the reality that the numbers -- 200,000 Americans are hospitalized with the flu each year – could rise. For those who are most vulnerable, including children, senior citizens and those with compromised immune systems, it’s a serious problem.As soon as the vaccine shortage news hit the airwaves, Americans scrambled to find out just how and where they could get their yearly immunization. In years past, long lines formed in the anticipation of receiving such a shot, but this year many learned that there wouldn’t be lines at all; there wasn’t going to be any vaccine administered. Signage that broadcasted “Flu shots canceled” seemed to say, “This year you’ll have to take your chances.” If you’re among the 10% or more of the U.S. population that will come down with the flu this season, you’ll be achy, feverish and feel general malaise for a while, but then you’ll get better. But there are also the 36,000 Americans on average who die annually from the disease, or from the complications it causes. That’s 12 times the number of people who perished on Sept. 11, 2001. To balance so many lives on the backs of just two companies who make the flu vaccine, Aventis Pasteur and Chiron, and to have one fail at such a critical time is tantamount to being unprepared for another terrorist attack. To put it mildly, we have been caught off guard with very little backup on the horizon.But threat of a flu outbreak or not, inspectors in the United Kingdom and spokespeople for Chiron aren’t saying much these days, either because they haven’t pinpointed the cause of the tainted batches or, worse yet, they know what the culprit is and don’t want to suffer the public relations fallout of a word that surfaces during times like this: negligence.Negligence is the cause of many a plant shutdown and production stoppage, not to mention the catalyst for whole teams of employees to be called on the carpet. We are all under pressure to produce, perform and excel in our lines of work. When people’s health and safety are on the line, the stakes are even higher.What if a lack of maintenance was the reason these vaccine batches became tainted? It’s possible that during a production changeover, the maintenance and operations people didn’t collaborate as they should have and perhaps weren’t as thorough as they could have been. Or it may be that the work was performed but not properly documented.Such a diagnosis would be negative publicity, for sure. But it would scream worldwide to business owners and manufacturers alike: Look at what can happen when you don’t have the tools and highly trained employees to keep your facility chugging forward, not backward. You can lose your product batch, miss your time-to-market window, sink your stock’s value and sully your company’s reputation all because you didn’t invest enough in preventive maintenance or work order control. Not to mentiont he possible health and safety ramifications for your customers. Chalk that one up to ignorance.However, situations like these sometimes have silver linings. This could also be a great opportunity for maintenance practitioners to highlight how valuable CMMS, change management and other systems are in a manufacturing environment fraught with regulations. No need to fear 21 CFR Part 11 when everything’s documented, tracked and taken care of on time.Tech school teachers and administrators all across the country could benefit as well. They could pound their collective fists on the public’s pulpit and demand funding to train the people who will quite literally keep this country and its manufacturing plants running. Just think of what could happen.Let’s face it. This industry needs big headlines like this to bring attention to the lack of preparedness in some of our most important manufacturing plants. If changes aren’t made, all the progress we’ve made in manufacturing is hampered.It would be like turning back the clock. Sort of like a term that has popped back up into the vernacular recently: rationing. It’s a word most Americans under the age of 50 have used in conversation but never really had to experience firsthand. But vaccine rationing drives the point home. If we don’t take care of our facilities, life as we know it will certainly change, and not in a good way. Lisa Greenberg is managing editor for Plant Services and Chemical Processing magazines. E-mail her at [email protected].

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