Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Desperation Play on Flu Vaccine

DHHS Secretary Sibelius spoke at Hunter College in New York on Thursday, part of her barnstorming tour to exhort Americans to get immunized against swine flu — and thereby avoid embarrassment to herself and her agency on account of  the extremely poor uptake of swine flu vaccine in the U.S.   As Mike Stobbe of AP reported on Friday, the latest estimates by CDC put the proportion of Americans vaccinated at 20 percent.

Federal agencies are already scrambling to spin the disaster as a victory.  “From our point of view, this looks very successful,” CDC spokesman Richard Quartarone tells Stobbe.  Despite the fact (also noted in the AP story) that vaccine uptake was barely better among the flu-vulnerable groups who were the focus of the immunization effort:  22 percent of personnel at health care facilities, 38 percent of pregnant women.  Some success.

Apparently, New York State Health Commissioner Daines doesn’t want to be left off the victory train.  He announced on Friday that the law requiring immunization of staff of health care facilities would be enforced — even though a restraining order was issued by state Supreme Court Justice Thomas McNamara in October prohibiting enforcement.

(A federal district court judge in San Diego ruled this week in favor of the Rady Children’s Hospital’s union of nurses and technicians, according to San Diego CityBeat.  The union had requested arbitration of the hospital’s mandatory flu-immunization policy which, they claim, violates their collective-bargaining agreement.)

Health officials’ pandemic-flu-disaster story was flimsy from the get-go.  The evidence for a serious flu outbreak was slim, despite the attempts by officials and some reporters to make the situation look dire.  But through autumn 2009, at least there were some hospitalizations and deaths that served to maintain the sense of impending catastrophe that the disaster story sought to achieve.  Now, though, with flu activity in the U.S. less than usual for this time of year and no widespread occurrence of H1N1 flu reported, officials are playing with the numbers in their desperate attempt to peddle vaccine.

In her talk at Hunter College, for instance, Secretary Sibelius noted that “over a thousand” infants and children had died from H1N1 flu.  The CDC’s latest flu update counts 300 pediatric flu deaths from April 2009 through the beginning of the new year.  And it notes that about a third of the 236 pediatric flu deaths in the current season had bacteria cultured from sterile sites — suggesting the question of whether more timely medical care, rather than immunization, might have saved many of those kids.  Where the remaining 700 of Secretary Sibelius’s thousand pediatric flu deaths are to be found remains a mystery.

What’s happening here?  The federal government ordered 250 million doses of swine-flu vaccine last year.   Vaccine makers were looking at terrific earnings from this outbreak.  But they are now worried about losses in the anticipated $7.6 billion worth of global sales — because so much vaccine has gone unused.  Western European countries are stopping their orders and seeking to off-load existing stocks.  Americans don’t want the vaccine, at least not when swine flu seems to be less damaging than regular, seasonal flu and they aren’t feeling reassured about the safety of the rapidly produced vaccine.

Federal and state officials won’t let go, though.  It’s dispiriting.

The disaster in Haiti put the spotlight on suffering this past week.   Not just the tremendous death and damage from the event itself, but the penury and misery in which many Haitians lived even before they had to live with, or die in, the earthquake.  And the earthquake should have reminded anyone who was watching — which is to say, nearly everyone — to be appalled at the amount and degree of suffering in the world, even on days when there are no natural disasters making the news.

The disquieting thing, especially this week, is that people who are in a position to devote themselves to alleviating illness and dispelling misery — health officials, I mean — are preoccupied with covering up for their mistakes on flu and satisfying the needs of the pharmaceutical companies.  Instead of looking at the suffering in our midst.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, January 17th, 2010 at 3:07 pm and is filed under Disease, epidemics, Health Professions, News, Physicians, public health, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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