Despite thousands of years of trying, the major medical accomplishments of mankind are few. There’s hand-washing and morphine, ether, and penicillin. And vaccination.
Unlike the others, however, vaccination has never been embraced with untarnished enthusiasm, perhaps because it’s such a messy business. The product is derived from living organisms and must be preserved for distribution. It is administered with needles; once in a while, it can make people sick. But in terms of beneficial public-health impact, nothing Homo sapiens has invented thus far outpaces the vaccine.
The entire vaccine debate has been stirred up for the umpteenth time this week by our national influenza epidemic. States including New York have declared public-health emergencies. Emergency rooms are packed, hospitals more packed, and beleaguered practitioners are gasping for air. No one is certain why this year is so outstandingly awful. Perhaps the vaccine is a poor match, though recent CDC data suggests otherwise; perhaps there was a screwup in the production that will come clear in a few months; or perhaps it’s just the way influenza operates. Last year was a year of lean, and therefore this year is a year of fat.