Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

DHHS: Grasping at Straws

What makes us feel that the once-estimable Department of Health and Human Services is drowning in a big pond of unused flu vaccine?

Is it the Advertisement?

A full-page ad taken out by DHHS in the main news section of today’s NY Times sounds very defensive when it claims that “H1N1 Flu Vaccine is Safe and Effective.”

The advertisement makes it seem like getting immunized against swine flu is a kind of patriotic duty.

Fighting the flu is a shared responsibility.  We ask you to join this fight to protect yourself and your community by getting the H1N1 flu vaccine.

And it’s signed by leaders of 35 health- or safety-related organizations — “top medical professionals,” according to the page’s header — who seem to be collaborators in a DHHS attempt to guilt the public into getting a flu shot.  Do it for your neighbors if you won’t do it for yourself, the text seems to say.

The clumsy production of the ad itself makes it all the more abject:  there’s a quarter page of grey text in a swimmy, sans-serif font, below which are two stacks of logos (of the 35 organizations) — vaguely impressive as a color border to the text in the version posted at flu-dot-gov, but just visual noise spilling down the Times page in black and white.

And some of the logos are trademarked or registered — requiring a tiny-type footnote reminding any reader intrepid enough to have reached the bottom of the page that DHHS doesn’t endorse private enterprises.  (It’s a little hard to understand how the collaboration on flu vaccination does not constitute an endorsement of private enterprises, but let’s not get bogged down.)

Is it the armada of PSAs and posters?

The ad is just the latest attempt by DHHS to muster enthusiasm for the flu campaign.  It makes available a panoply of printed material at its flu website, intended for Spanish-speaking Americans, African Americans, Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, “asthma patients,” and others.  With a separate flotilla of posters and publications for parents, many bilingual (“I’ll protect my baby/Protegeré a mi bebé” and others), plus additional ones meant for older people, diabetics, and travelers.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that DHHS is trying too hard.  And hard to avoid wondering why.

Is it the information itself?

The second sentence of the Times ad tells the sad story:  Over 136 million doses of H1N1 vaccine are now available.   Since the number of flu vaccine doses actually administered so far is probably about 60 million, it takes only grade-school arithmetic to realize that the federal government purchased much more H1N1 vaccine than Americans are willing to take.

DHHS’s desperate need for everyone to get vaccinated is disheartening.  After all, this is the organization that created and carried out the previous swine flu fiasco entirely on its own:  the 1976 immunize-every-American campaign to prevent the Flu Outbreak That Wasn’t.

So it’s bad enough that CDC, with more experience and research findings than it had in ’76,  badly overestimated the intensity of the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak.  It’s worse that DHHS  grossly overestimated the ardor of the American people for media-heavy health crusades at a time of tight budgets and high unemployment.  Most dispiriting of all is that the agency finally resorts to wheedling the public to get immunized against swine flu.

Which gives us a glimpse of another contributor to the sense that DHHS is floundering:

There is a widespread feeling that official agencies overplayed their hand on swine flu.

Everywhere, it seems, doubts are being voiced about the decisions by both U.S. authorities and WHO — declaring the pandemic, publicizing the unprecedented danger, supporting mass immunization, purchasing and distributing Tamiflu, and so on:

A conclusion:  it feels like DHHS is drowning because it is.  Officials made bad choices, fell for the preparedness charade, lost sight of what it would mean to protect the public’s health and strove instead to protect the professional organizations’ campaigns for attention and the pharmaceutical companies’ ploys for profit.

An appeal to Secretary Sibelius:  just say “We goofed.”

Say “We should have used the resources to help people quit smoking or to control MRSA or to verify the safety of pharmaceuticals. We didn’t; we overestimated flu.  We meant well but we loused up.  We’ll try to do better next time.”

Say “At least we didn’t kill people with vaccine, like in ’76” (okay, for legal purposes, you probably have to say “…allegedly kill people,” since the U.S. government has not admitted that the 1976 vaccine actually caused the deaths from Guillain-Barré syndrome).

Say “How much better to have prepared by urging hospitals to consider surge capacity and then to find it wasn’t needed, than to have done nothing and seen people die who could have been saved by administering antivirals.”

Say “We know that vaccines are not the answer to flu.  We know that the flu vaccine isn’t very effective, we know that immunization against flu is not very useful as a public health intervention unless everyone is immunized, we know that it’s impossible in this country to force everyone to be immunized, we know that immunization is good for people who stand to get very sick if infected but that all it offers to the majority of the population is a reduction in the odds of getting sick.   We know that we need to take a more complex approach to flu control.  We’re working on all that.”

But please spare us the embarrassing advertisements.

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This entry was posted on Sunday, January 10th, 2010 at 8:21 pm and is filed under epidemics, Health Professions, News, Outbreaks, Physicians, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to “DHHS: Grasping at Straws”

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