United Airlines Ends Free Vaccine Delivery To Pacific

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Free shipping not aligned with company goals, says airline

By Moneth Deposa

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, April 24, 2012) – Flu vaccines may not arrive as expected in the Pacific islands beginning this year after United Airlines discontinued the service of shipping them for free as was the carrier's customary practice.

Pacific Island Health Officers Association's (PIHOA) Michael Epp relayed this to its members, including the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. (CHC) in a letter last week.

PIHOA provides a regional voice for the six U.S. associated Pacific islands in their development of sustainable and effective health systems.

The association works to strengthen cross-cutting public health infrastructure in the Pacific islands, with priority initiatives that address health workforce development, quality assurance, health data systems, public health planning, and public health laboratories.

Epp disclosed to members that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has informed PIHOA that United Airlines has stopped the annual practice-started by Continental Airlines-of providing free shipping to PIHOA member states of excess U.S. DOD influenza vaccines.

The official asked members to communicate with their foreign affairs minister, U.S. ambassadors, congressional representatives, or whomever they believe is appropriate and request their assistance with communicating with United Airlines on behalf of their populations.

Saipan Tribune learned that each year since 2007, Joint Task Force Homeland Defense along with Tripler Army Medical Center and the U.S. Army Medical Material Agency coordinated delivery of excess Department of Defense flu vaccine to the Pacific.

The defense department works with the public health department from Guam, healthcare corporation in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas (CNMI), health departments from Republic of Palau, Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of the Marshall Islands, and American Samoa to identify whether or not they would benefit from additional flu vaccine. The Center for Disease and Control sends these islands vaccines each year and each year most of the islands are still short.

The program began in 2007 when DOD realized it was destroying excess vaccine while the Pacific islands had a shortage.

Recognizing this, DOD began the U.S. Pacific Islands Vaccine Program with a pilot in the CNMI which resulted in close 8,000 doses being sent.

It was learned that the CNMI pilot was successful and the following year DOD expanded the program to include the six locations sending 26,500 doses which was valued at close to $260,000.

According to PIHOA, every year Hawaiian Airlines and Continental Micronesia has partnered with DOD to fly the donated flu vaccine at no cost. Hawaiian Airlines flew the vaccine out this year to American Samoa but for Guam, the CNMI, Palau, FSM, and Marshall Islands these all dependent on Continental, and now United Airlines.

Based on the information shared by PIHOA to its members, the airlines' regional sales manager for southwest region, Bill Conrad, sent a letter to the DOD on its decision to discontinue the service.

Conrad, in his letter to DOD, indicated that "while I do believe that this is a worthy cause, unfortunately is does not align with our overall corporate efforts and strategies," adding that it will not able to extend any gratis support for this movement.

New vaccines came in directly from DOD

Warren Villagomez, Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. director for emergency preparedness, confirmed with Saipan Tribune about the latest decision from the United Airlines.

However, he said new flu vaccines indeed came in on April 15 with 330 doses directly from the U.S. Department of Defense, as a result of the airline's decision. Villagomez is hopeful that free shipment of the flu vaccine will resume in the near future.

The 330 doses were the CNMI's request for 2012. The amount requested was based on the needs as seen by the emergency preparedness office and the immunization program.

Villagomez said the new shipment was formally turned over to him, being the direct coordinator, from a staffer of DOD. He confirmed that there is ongoing communication with the airlines on the request to re-instate and re-engage the partnership.

"Yes, there is an impact because United Airlines is one of the major carriers. But we're hopeful on the re-instatement and re-engagement of this partnership in the very near future," Villagomez said yesterday, adding that at present, the corporation has enough flu vaccines available on hand to give those community member who have yet to avail it.

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