Swine Flu and Fear

I have been writing articles lately about the reasons for the H1N1 vaccine shortage and what to do about it. You can find these pieces in Forbes.com, Slate, and most recently as an oped in Wednesday's NY Daily News. I believe that fear has played a major role in governing our public health response to H1N1 swine flu and the pressing need for a plentiful pandemic vaccine. I realize that it is easy to bludgeon our officials with the retrospectoscope, on the other hand, many of these nervous responses are chronic, and require significant adjustment going forward_

  • Vaccine fear mongers do significant harm. Fear of thimerosal (a mercury-containing preservative that is used to bundle doses and has been shown not to cause autism) led to too much time spent trying to produce single vaccine doses without it.
  • The CDC's fear of overreacting to a possible pandemic, as they did in 1976 when 40 million people were vaccinated unnecessarily for a pandemic that never came, led to too much caution here, where instead a shift in vaccine production to the H1N1 vaccine could have led to many more million doses available now.
  • Fear of seasonal flu, which doesn't peak until much later, if at all (maybe crowded out by the H1N1 pandemic strain), led to 115 million doses of seasonal flu vaccine produced, when there is no seasonal flu around.
  • Fear of new vaccines in the U.S. has led the FDA to fail to approve several new vaccines which use more up to date technologies such as mammalian cell culture instead of hen eggs, or additives known as adjuvants which make vaccines more potent so a smaller supply can be used for more inoculations. One American company, Baxter, makes a mammalian cell vaccine that will be used extensively in Europe, especially for those with egg allergies, but is not approved for use here.
  • Fear of vaccines has led to poor compliance, especially for children, the group that currently seems to be most at risk for complications of the disease.
  • Fear of admitting error has led our public health officials to delay in acknowledging the shortage or in correcting it, delay in accepting that it is H1N1 that is the predominant flu this year, not the seasonal strains.
  • Fear of the spreading flu may be useful to combat fear of the vaccine, but a better approach would be a rational discourse based on statistics and real risk.

Dr. Marc Siegel is an internist and associate professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine. He is a FOX News medical contributor and writes a health column for the LA Times, where he examines TV and movies for medical accuracy. Dr. Siegel's new Ebook: Swine Flu; the New Pandemic, will be published in early October. Dr. Siegel is also the author of "False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear"and "Bird Flu: Everything You Need to Know About the Next Pandemic."Read more at www.doctorsiegel.com