Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

No Meeting of Minds on Flu

As the story of the flu pandemic of 2009 matures, it brings out the characteristic traits of each of the  many spheres of interest that it touches.  The physicians are certain that the news is bad, the social critics are skeptical, the official agencies are — in their usual collusion with biotech corporations (especially pharmaceutical companies) — happily promoting high-cost, high-tech responses.  And so on.

Joshua Holland’s post at AlterNet yesterday tries to explain why H1N1 swine flu shouldn’t be cause for hysteria.  He puts this outbreak in the context of flu history and the threat posed by other, more harmful, conditions — malaria for instance.  Holland plays a little bit fast and loose with the numbers:  it probably isn’t accurate to extrapolate, from the number of confirmed flu deaths so far, to get a total number of deaths that will be caused by the swine H1N1 strain this year — more efficient spread in the  cities of the Northern hemisphere in the coming few months is likely to produce fatalities at a higher rate than the more sporadic outbreaks here in April and May.  And he’s overly critical of the media — a point brought out by Revere in a response to Holland at Effect Measure today.

But, as Frank Furedi has been telling us (recently in Erasmus Law Review, for example), try to explain how people’s deep-seated anxieties drive perceptions that risk is extraordinary and unprecedented (and contribute to demands for more and better high-cost technology to deal with it) and you get some people riled up.  Disappointingly, even Effect Measure, whose assessments are consistently level-headed and cogent, slips here, flashing the moral-entrepreneur card at Mr. Holland:

Joshua Holland has never cared for a critically ill person with Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), which is often the terminal event for flu patients. So I’ll tell him. It doesn’t matter if it’s caused by bacteria (many are). Half of them die no matter what you do and no matter what intensive care unit you have available to you or what antibiotic or what computer controlled respirator. We still can’t do much.

Nobody thinks it’s a good idea to let people get ARDS, and Holland acknowledges that flu is a problem that should be dealt with.  But that’s not always enough.  Question the intensity of perceived risk or the need for all the technology, and you find this out fast.

But Revere is back on track when noting that lots of problems — including malaria — are horrendous and deserve attention, and probably don’t get it because they happen to people far away.

Where would the impetus to deal with global problems besides flu come from?  A global organization that can keep things in perspective would be useful.  Poor W.H.O. isn’t positioned to do that.  Yesterday’s flu advisory from W.H.O. emphasizes the use of antivirals (oseltamivir and zanamivir) to treat people with severe or possibly severe flu:

Early treatment is especially important for patients who are at increased risk of developing complications, those who present with severe illness or those with worsening signs and symptoms.

Yet, the W.H.O. also warns against hastening the development of resistance.  This agency gets a lot of flak for not doing more and for panic-mongering when it does do more.  But, really, it’s only doing its job:  offer advice, and support interventions when invited.  It isn’t consistent, naturally.  It can’t make binding policy.  It faces a limitless and essentially insuperable legitimation problem.  In a way, W.H.O.’s hardest job is simply to maintain its own legitimacy.

Still, in a world poised to interpret signs of illness as evidence of risk and eager for technical fixes to alleviate the sense of vulnerability risk instills, the W.H.O.’s announcements can seem authoritative — and look like beckoning to the drug makers.  A Reuters story yesterday is entitled “Early Use of Antivirals Key in H1N1 Flu: WHO,” and highlights the value of the two antiviral medications more than the caution W.H.O. wants to instill.

Meanwhile, agencies that should be making real policy are focusing on immunization.  In today’s Washington Post, Rob Stein reports on health care workers’ resistance to mandatory flu vaccination.  New York State made flu immunization mandatory early on, not only for salaried health care workers but for anyone — including medical and nursing students — who might come in contact with patients, and is putting teeth into the requirement with sanctions for refuseniks.  The state resorts to high  moral rhetoric to justify its policy.  The state’s health commissioner told Stein that “the rationale begins with the health-care ethic, which is: The patient’s well-being comes ahead of the personal preferences of health-care workers.”

And at CDC, the director is cautioning that there might be a rough start-up to the swine flu immunization campaign, as the first doses of vaccine will be made available in early October.  According to the NY Times, there should be 40 million doses of vaccine available by mid-October.

We wonder whether immunization will be of any public health value at all, by the time there’s enough vaccine that it can be offered to anyone other than health care workers and a few of the people who really need protection (young people, infants’ caregivers, and pregnant women, especially — DemFromCT’s round-up at DailyKos is always worth reading).  Given the rapidity of spread of flu — in 37 U.S. states, H1N1 spread is already regional or widespread; flu is spreading locally in 12 more states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. — and based on the usual course of flu outbreaks, it seems possible that this outbreak will peak by mid November.  There’s no knowing if that will be so, obviously.  Even if it is, immunization would continue to be useful to prevent severe cases among people who are likely to get very sick if infected.

But mass immunization would no longer be of much use in preventing further incidence of infection on a population level if high levels of acquired immunity are reached across much of the population by the time vaccine is widely available.

That’s the problem with relying on mass immunization as the centerpiece of public health response: as in the old joke about comedy, timing is everything.  In 1976, there was too much immunization, too soon.  It might turn out that this year, there’s too little, too late.  The dynamics of vaccine availability and the dynamics of flu spread have to be watched in tandem, and policy updated accordingly.

In any case, with vaccine at the center, the rest of the story — the complex environmental interactions that allow flu genomes to recombine, the trade in animals and feed that allow viruses to move around, the problems of affordability and immune status and competing viral subtypes, the health care facilities to handle severe cases, and so on — gets shoved to the side.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, September 26th, 2009 at 2:46 pm and is filed under Disease, epidemics, Health Professions, Narratives, News, Outbreaks, Physicians, public health, Risk, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.