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The Flu Panic

October 19 2004 11:51 PM ET (Permalink) (Comment)

Okay, I'm sure you all know about the shortage of flu vaccine. A bunch of people are freaking out. And, to be honest, it's pissing me off.

Not so much about the shortage, even though it's entirely stupid that it's happened. It's all of the BS political posturing and the panicky public.

Today, I saw Tommy Thompson, Secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services, on CNN ranting about the shortage. Over the course of the thirty seconds I watched, he blamed the shortage on things that happened in the 90s (the rather common "Blame Clinton" model) and suggested that they should convene a major symposium to discuss the possibility of a "flu epidemic" thanks to the shortage.

If he were standing here, I'd smack him upside the head. All of that is fear-mongering BS.

If you really feel like blaming somebody for the shortage, blame the continuing shift of government services to the private sector under Republican leadership. I'm not saying that it's entirely a bad thing, or that the government should take over total control of providing flu vaccine. But when it comes to something of so much seeming importance, how hard would it be for the government to take a more active role? Why pass this off 100% to private companies?

Easy scenario: the government contracts with two or three private (US-based) companies to manufacture the vaccine. They order the number of doses they think are necessary. They then make those doses available to health care facilities at cost. Win-win for everybody: companies made some kind of reasonable profit, and a supply of vaccine is nearly guaranteed. (Goverment contract: see also Halliburton in Iraq.)

Oh, wait, but that sounds like nationalized medicine, doesn't it? Yeah, right. As obvious as it is that Medicare should be allowed to do the same for prescription drugs, I think it's reasonable to make an exception for something that the government thinks should be available to the majority of the population.

Oh, yeah, but making an exception there will lead to nationalized medicine. It's a "slippery slope"!! (Ugh.)

Seriously, though, is the current model working? If leaving it to the private sector is so brilliant, how come half of our supply is coming from abroad?

(I suspect that the US manufacturers are holding out for some of those lawsuit exemption laws that they're hoping Congress will pass. Meanwhile, the country suffers. Thumbs up once again to our phenomenal drug companies for looking out for the public good.)

Regardless, I don't think a flu vaccine shortage is the titanic catastrophe that some people are making it out to be.

For starters, the flu vaccine is only a few years old. Good lord, what did we ever do before there was a vaccine? Oh, yeah, we occasionally got the flu. The original intention of the vaccine was to cover at-risk groups who might die if they got the flu. With the rare exception of the mysteriously deadly versions of the flu (all of which pre-date the vast majority of our population), most of the common flu viruses will simply make you sick for a couple of weeks.

Honestly, I haven't taken the flu vaccine in my entire life. The last several years, a friend's mother has been freaking out trying to convince me to get the vaccine. And I haven't.

Why? Because pretty much every year, supplies are limited. When they first started offering the thing, they suggested that only the "at risk" groups should get it. As someone who works out regularly, eats (reasonably) healthily, and is in his late-20s, I certainly don't qualify as "at risk". Every year, I might get the flu. But there has been at least one year where my not taking the vaccine has meant one more person who might actually have been at risk got it.

And, by some fortunate grace of God (or just dumb luck), I haven't gotten the flu. (Though, now that I've written this, this will be the year.)

Fun fact: last year, the flu virus that most affected the country wasn't included in the vaccine. Yeah, so you might have have gotten the vaccine and still gotten the flu. You see, each year, they develop the vaccine based on what they expect to be the most commonly transmitted viruses, and, sometimes, they make an incorrect prediction. (See also: weather forecasters.)

As for me, I tend to get felled by laryngitis at least once a year, and it usually knocks me down for a couple of weeks. So it's not like a lack of flu vaccine is going to save you (or me) from getting sick at all.

I know that a lot of the BS is a combination of stupid people overreacting (which is normal) and the fact that the election is two weeks away.

But, good grief, this is ridiculous.

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