CHICAGO - Amid worries about bird flu, demand for a flu medicine is so extreme that the drug's maker has stopped shipping it to private U.S. suppliers just as consumers fret over whether they should try to stock up on the drug.
Tamiflu, a prescription drug designed to treat regular flu, is running scarce because of worries the bird flu in Asia might morph into a contagious human flu that circles the globe.
Tamiflu's maker, Roche Holding AG in Switzerland, said Thursday it was temporarily suspending U.S. shipment because of increased global demand. Company officials have previously said they are limiting supplies to pharmacies to thwart hoarding.
But there are signs that is happening.
"We've seen recently some very large purchases at the wholesale level, companies or large entities who are possibly hoarding Tamiflu right now," said Darien Wilson, spokeswoman at Roche's U.S. offices in Nutley, N.J.
Prescriptions for the drug last week were nearly quadruple what they were a year before, according to Verispan, a Pennsylvania-based company that monitors pharmacy sales. Some health departments and doctors' groups are urging consumers, doctors and even school districts not to stockpile the drug.
And this winter's flu season hasn't even started yet.
"The priority is that there is enough Tamiflu for the people who need it at the start of the influenza season," said Roche spokesman Alexander Klauser. "At the moment, there is no influenza currently circulating."
Meanwhile, the U.S. government isn't giving advice on whether people should have a stash of Tamiflu, just in case bird flu triggers a human pandemic.
"Those are questions that are under discussion," said Christina Pearson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Right now we're focused on the seasonal flu."
HHS includes the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose job includes public health recommendations. The agency's silence on the issue of hoarding has frustrated some local health departments.
"A lot of people have asked the CDC to provide some guidance about this, with patients asking doctors for prescriptions," said Dr. Craig Conover, medical director for the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Personal hoarding isn't fair, he said, "but on the other hand, I have heard people say that the more this gets used, the more manufacturing ability they'll develop. We've chosen to wait for CDC guidance on this."
Tamiflu is the drug most people are asking about since it seems to offer some protection to people against the type of flu that has devastated Asian poultry flocks and is spreading to birds in Europe. Bird flu has killed more than 60 people over the past two years.
Maura Robbins of Chicago said she and her husband have discussed whether to seek prescriptions for their two young children as a precaution. They won't for now, because they "didn't want to buy into the hysteria or overreact," Robbins said.
Dr. Bennett Kaye, a pediatrician affiliated with Chicago's Children's Memorial Hospital, said he tells patients that stocking up on Tamiflu "is definitely a bad, bad idea."
"Parents should not be worried about their kids catching bird flu this year unless they're planning on visiting a chicken farm in Vietnam," Kaye said. "If we keep using Tamiflu like it's in the tap water, then it's going to lose its effectiveness."
The virus circulating among Asian birds is not spreading between people and is not even very easy for people to catch from birds.
"This is not a concern for the person on the street," Kaye said.
Published reports suggest that some doctors are keeping supplies of Tamiflu to give to family and friends in case the bird flu mutates into a bigger threat to people, but no doctors reached for this story admitted that.
The American Medical Association is against personal stockpiling and says the misuse of Tamiflu could lead to drug-resistant flu strains.
The American Academy of Pediatrics is preparing a statement urging pediatricians "not to do personal or organizational stockpiles," said Dr. John Bradley, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' infectious disease committee. "The last sentence of the statement is that no pediatrician on this committee has a personal stockpile or is prescribing the drug" for healthy people.
"It would be nice to have a personal stockpile, but I believe that the disadvantage for society is so much greater than my own personal interest in staying well," Bradley said.
Dr. Deborah Yokoe, an infectious disease specialist at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, said, "Doctors are human, too. They have the same sorts of anxieties themselves. I'm sure some are keeping supplies, too."
Last week, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health issued a notice advising against personal stockpiling, prompted by patients' questions, and Yokoe said such messages will discourage some doctors from writing advance prescriptions for a potential flu pandemic.
Dr. Nick Tsoulos, a San Diego pediatrician, said he gave similar advice to several local schools that asked about getting advance supplies for students.
"There are a number of pitfalls," Tsoulos said. People likely would use the drugs for "a little runny nose or a cough," he said, rather than the flu.
Tamiflu isn't the only hot commodity being sought because of pandemic worries.
Kimberly-Clark Health Care says it has "ramped up to full capacity" face mask production to keep up with bird flu-linked demand from governments, hospitals and individuals. Surgical N-95 masks protect against airborne disease transmission.
Company spokesman David Parks declined to specify numbers but said some orders have been 50 times higher than usual.
3M spokeswoman Jacqueline Berry also reported a rise in face-mask orders but said reasons for demand include hurricane-related mold problems.