The hysteria over the swine-flu vaccine—and not just the virus itself—is a public-health disaster and the latest example of America’s irrational thinking, says Michael Specter.
In late April, an influenza virus that had never before been recognized in humans began to work its way through North America, infecting thousands of people. Soon after, European health officials warned E.U. citizens to keep to their side of the Atlantic. Russia and China, among other countries, decided to quarantine visitors with flu symptoms. In June, Margaret Chan, the director general of the World Health Organization, ratcheted up the level of dread by declaring the highest possible public-health alert. That unleashed a wave of fear and anxiety at least as forceful as the H1N1 virus itself.
Every day, newspapers and television outlets battled to see who could horrify more people with fewer words. Headlines that played on the pandemic’s original misnomer, swine flu, were ubiquitous. (When it comes to causing needless terror, no media outlet can top the New York Post, whose gigantic headline, HOG WILD, ran on its front page over a picture of a pig with a thermometer in its mouth.)
The risks of falling seriously ill as a result of this new H1N1 influenza virus are tens of thousands of times greater than the risks of serious adverse reactions caused by the vaccine.
Then school let out, summer came, and the virus seemed to vanish. The old headlines were replaced with new headlines: The Flu? Big Deal. What’s the Fuss? In polls, millions of Americans said (and keep saying) they saw no reason to bother with the vaccine. Some parents have even taken their children to “flu parties” so they can be exposed to a virus that is, beyond question, capable of killing them.
Why do verifiable facts seem less meaningful than intuition, and how could fear of the flu suddenly give way to fear of the vaccination? We have been here before, of course. The battle over the MMR vaccine and its thoroughly debunked theoretical link to autism has raged for years. No amount of data will end that debate. Let’s hope this flu pandemic remains relatively mild. (There is no guarantee. Nobody knows how a virus will mutate.) People question authority, doctors, government edicts, science, and particularly pharmaceutical companies as never before. When a doctor says, “This shot will be good for you,” many people recoil instinctively.
While understandable, the consequences can be tragic because—with the single exception of clean water—vaccines are the most effective public-health measure the world has ever known. That, too, is part of the problem. Twenty-five years ago, when a pediatrician wanted to learn a child’s medical history, he or she would ask about the UCDs: usual childhood diseases. Like measles, mumps, chicken pox. Doctors in America don’t ask that question anymore because those diseases have largely disappeared. Today the terminology is VPD: vaccine preventable disease. Three magic words.
Few parents of young children in America have ever even seen a disease like measles—which, in the developing world, kills more than 20 children every hour. That leaves them free to worry about the remote risks associated with vaccines themselves. (And vaccines are not without risk, and those risks are not to be taken lightly.) Still, the risks of falling seriously ill as a result of this new H1N1 influenza virus are tens of thousands of times greater than the risks of serious adverse reactions caused by the vaccine. (We know that because even though the virus is new, the vaccine is not. It has been made the way flu vaccines are made every year.)
• Lee Siegel: The United States of Hysteria• Kent Sepkowitz: Behind the Swine Flu Emergency• Diseases Scarier Than Swine Flu• Why You Love Being Scared of Swine FluPeople like to say that vaccination decisions are always a matter of individual rights. I am sorry, but I have to disagree. Public health is public. Since April, more than a million Americans have been infected with H1N1 flu. Ten thousand have been hospitalized, utilizing resources we all need to share. More than a thousand have died, including more than 75 children. When you don’t vaccinate your child and send him to school, he is more likely to get sick; he is also more likely to infect others—including those who may have diseases that weaken their immune systems. For kids like that, this flu is particularly lethal.
It would be nice to have vaccines made in a laboratory instead of grown in eggs, as we have done for more than 50 years. It would certainly speed the supply route. There is no question government can do a better job of developing and delivering vaccines. Of course, none of that matters to the 41 percent of people who say they have no intention of vaccinating themselves against this new virus. For them, this infectious threat, like so many others, simply presents one more reason to run away from the truth and endanger us all.
Michael Specter writes about science and global public health for The New Yorker. His new book, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives, has just been published by The Penguin Press.