Barbara Ehrenreich on Positive Thinking and Vaccines

Positive thinking isn’t a good approach in epidemiology. A religious faith in the free market as the best answer to everything doesn’t work in public health. Keeping vaccines scarce, profitable and of limited distribution is no way to handle an epidemic.

I’m not panicking at the news of the death of Skyla J. Reposa-Alves, the 12 year old girl who died of the H1N1 flu, but I’m very sad. I think of her family, and a young life lost to an illness that might have been prevented. And I’m worried, because neither I or my family have been able to get the vaccine yet.

As I noted in ‘The Panic of 2004′, an antiquated system was run into a ditch in the Bush administration. But the buck stops on President Obama’s desk now, and he needs to ignore the whining and get the corporations to start fulfilling their contracts (see Barbara Ehrenreich’s piece here) if they want another dollar of our money…

As for Big Pharma, the truth is that they’re just not all that into vaccines, traditionally preferring to manufacture drugs for such plagues as erectile dysfunction, social anxiety, and restless leg syndrome. Vaccines can be tricky and less than maximally profitable to manufacture. They go out of style with every microbial mutation, and usually it’s the government, rather than cunning direct-to-consumer commercials, that determines who gets them. So it should have been no surprise that Big Pharma approached the H1N1 problem ploddingly, using a 50-year old technology involving the production of the virus in chicken eggs, a method long since abandoned by China and the European Union.

Let me note that vaccines are also not 100% effective or 100% risk free. Some are using this fact as the basis of conspiracy theories that the flu vaccine is dangerous.

Everything is risk v. benefit. I am of an age to know people whose lives were devastated by polio, a disease I was fortunate enough to be immunized against. H1N1 seems to hang around all year, unlike the seasonal flu. Getting vaccinated is a good risk, much safer than getting into a car, which most of us do every day.

The media thrive on a cycle of panic. They need to have a crisis to draw viewers. Readers who take the longer view will recall that the ‘swine flu’ has been a worry to scientists for about a decade. H1N1 and similar viruses have been circulating around the world, causing a few deaths annually in Vietnam or Egypt or China, causing alarm among those who think globally.

They remember 1918. This year’s flu is much milder, but has the ability to take a young life unexpectedly. That’s scary. A private, for-profit model will not protect us in this situation. We need a revival of public health. Our new Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, has her work cut out for her.

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