Swine flu leading to Purell shortage

The swine flu outbreak has caused such a demand for hand sanitizers that the makers and distributors of Purell are warning individual consumers and large users such as hospitals that limited supplies of Purell may be available across the country.

The company that invented Purell, Gojo Industries Inc. of Akron, Ohio, is asking its customers not to hoard the product. The need will be met with increased production, wrote Mark Lerner, president and chief operating officer at Gojo, on the company's Web site.

"In fact, stockpiling could cause an actual shortage which, in turn, could threaten public health," Lerner wrote.

Hand sanitizers are fast becoming the go-to item in the fight against being infected by the H1N1 virus. Small dispensers of the gel can be found almost everywhere. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing hands often with soap and water, especially after coughing or sneezing, and using alcohol-based hand cleaners such as Purell and other products.

It's a $117 million market. Sales jumped 50% in August from the same month in 2008.

Johnson & Johnson, which puts Purell in grocery stores and other retail outlets, is having the same problem as Gojo.

"Due to the influenza A (H1N1) virus outbreak this past spring and resurgence this fall, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies Inc. has experienced heavy demand on supplies of Purell Instant Hand Sanitizer," Johnson & Johnson spokeswoman Jaimie Peltzman wrote me in an e-mail.

"We acknowledge that, because of this increase in demand, consumers may currently find limited supplies of Purell Instant Hand Sanitizer at certain retailers," Peltzman wrote. "Our top priority is public health and we are committed to working wtih our suppliers to attempt increase production of Purell Instant Hand Sanitizer to ensure that sufficient quantities are available to meet consumer demand during the remainder of 2009 and in 2010."

That's for retail markets. A similar shortage is happening for Gojo, which makes Purell for professional markets such as hospitals, school districts, office buildings and other large buyers.

Gojo has tripled production, and still can't keep up with demand, leading it to increase hiring on its Web site.

Gojo doesn't expect shortages of Purell this fall and winter, but spokeswoman Angelina Watkins said that some professional market customers may get late orders or different-size bottles than what they ordered.

"Despite making huge investments to increase our capacity -- running our plants 24/7 and increasing our staff -- we are unable to keep up with the unprecedented demand," Gojo president Lerner wrote. "Even with increased manufacturing capacity, there is a limit to how much we can produce in a short period of time."

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Reach him at www.AaronCrowe.net
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