France has been particularly affected by a world-wide shortage of vaccines, notably DTP (diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus), a compulsory vaccination in young children.
The inoculation has become increasingly rare in the French health service, a worrying situation for parents of young children who can find themselves unable to vaccinate their children against DTP, as stipulated before a child is allowed to attend school.
Why is this vaccine in such short supply?
According to pharmaceutical multinational GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which shares the French market for the inoculation with French vaccine-maker Sanofi Pasteur, there are two overriding causes for the shortage.
“There was a worldwide spike in the number of whooping cough cases in 2012 and 2013 that partly explains the shortage,” GSK France spokeswoman Telma Léry told FRANCE 24.
“This led 17 countries, including the USA, India and Australia, to recommend pregnant women take the combination diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus jab in the third term of their pregnancy. The result was a big increase in demand that depleted worldwide stocks of DTP.”
The second factor is that the vaccines are made according to a biological, not chemical, process.
“Working with living organisms means working with a large number of variables that have to be rigorously controlled, and as a consequence the process takes a long time,” said Léry. “A vaccine like DTP can take up to 18 months to manufacture.”
“Epidemics are impossible to predict,” she added. “Add to that the difficulty of predicting how long a batch of vaccine can take to make and how long it takes to reach the market.”
All is not lost, however. An alternative vaccine – Infanrix Hexa, made by GSK – which inoculates against diphtheria, whooping cough and polio, as well as hepatitis-B, is readily available.
“This vaccine is available and can be used without risk to children,” Odile Launay, director of the French Vaccinations Technical committee, told RTL radio.
The only problem is that 10% of French parents refuse to allow their children to be inoculated with Infanrix Hexa because of (unproven) worries that the jab includes too many risk factors and can cause anaphylactic shock and death in babies.
The availability of Infanrix Hexa raises another issue entirely – namely, that each dose costs 39.04 euros, compared to the 6.10 euros for a regular DTP shot.
The higher pricing has led to accusations that the drug companies have put profit before safety.
Retired surgeon and university professor Henri Joyeux, who is no stranger to medical controversy, has openly accused companies like GSK of having engineered the dearth of DTP for their own benefit, and started a petition in May that has so far gained 200,000 signatures.
French lawmakers have also complained that the much higher cost is an unacceptable burden on the French health services and the compulsory health insurance paid by French workers.
“It is going to cost a fortune to France’s social security system,” said Green Party National Assembly member Michèle Rivasi on France 2 in March. “Who is profiting from this crime? The pharmaceutical companies?”
GSK insists that it was never its intention to boost profits by forcing an expensive alternative vaccine onto the market.
“Why would the laboratories try to engineer this lack of [DPT] when 92% of French children received the Infanrix Hexa vaccine [at a cost of 39.04 euros] even before there was a whooping cough epidemic and a subsequent shortage?” said Telma Léry.
This article was translated from the original in French.
Date created : 2015-08-26