Thousands of sick and elderly NHS patients may have been left at increased risk of pneumonia this winter by a severe shortage of a vaccine that protects against it.
Many GPs have been unable to get hold of the vaccine — called PPV23 — since October, when Public Health England first warned stocks were drying up.
Now drug firm MSD, the only supplier, warns it could be the end of March before more vaccine is available.
Many sick and elderly may be at high risk as GPs struggle to get hold of the jab to protect them against pneumonia
Doctors have been told to prioritise those most at risk from infection, such as patients with chronic heart, lung or liver diseases, over ‘healthy’ elderly people aged over 65 — who are also entitled to the jab on the NHS.
Pneumonia kills an estimated 30,000 people a year in the UK and experts last night expressed alarm at the impact the shortage could have on patients.
Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: ‘This is concerning. Pneumonia remains the sixth biggest cause of death in the UK and prevention is vital in protecting the most vulnerable in our society, such as those with an existing lung condition, children, pregnant women and the elderly.’
Often a complication of infections such as flu, pneumonia can develop within hours. Although it can be triggered by a variety of organisms including viruses, the most common cause is the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae (or pneumococcus) — which the PPV23 vaccine protects against.
Every year, around two million sick and elderly NHS patients receive the jab — the effects can last up to 20 years.
Although there are more than 90 different strains of the pneumococcal bacterium, most serious infections are caused by just eight to ten of these. The vaccine in short supply covers all these, plus another dozen or so strains.
Drug firm MSD, the only supplier, warns it could be the end of March before more vaccine is available
GPs were warned in a government circular in October that a global squeeze on supplies meant they would have to ration vaccines, with otherwise healthy over-65s the most likely to lose out.
Doctors were told not to give patients the jab alongside the flu vaccine — the usual practice — but instead spread vaccinations out over the year.
This is despite the fact that many flu-related deaths in winter are actually due to pneumonia complications.
The Public Health England circular said: ‘Given the shortage, practices should deliver the vaccine programme throughout the year — rather than linking it to the flu programme.
‘This will help ensure demand is more consistent across the year. For practices that do procure stock, the priority should be those newly diagnosed with conditions in the high-priority groups.’
The Department of Health was unable to confirm exactly how many patients may have missed out on the jab due to the deficit.But it said in a statement: ‘We are working closely with MSD and more stocks will be made available over the coming months.
‘Public Health England is working with doctors to manage short-term supply issues.’
The crisis is due to a surge in global demand and another supplier pulling out of the market in 2016.
A spokesman for MSD said: ‘We are taking steps internationally to increase our manufacturing capacity to meet this demand. But as of January 2018 we have very limited stocks of PPV23 vaccine available in the UK. Additional replenishment is due at the mid to end of the first quarter of the year.’
GPs have been warned a second pneumonia vaccine, given to infants and toddlers and called PCV13, is not a suitable substitute in the elderly, even though it is not in short supply.