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Ivy Chang '10: Balancing facts and fear

The start of the school year brings with it the usual anxieties about moving in, shopping for classes, meeting roommates and more. This fall, fears of swine flu are added to the mix. 

To combat a possible epidemic, federal health officials are considering a course of three flu vaccinations — two to combat swine flu in addition to the seasonal flu vaccine. If approved, this plan will be the first in the United States to recommend more than one flu vaccine per year.

A recent "Report to the President" about swine flu preparations estimated that about half of the population might be infected by winter, with up to 90,000 swine flu-related deaths.

There was also a call to "accelerate production" of the vaccine. So far, the federal government has spent $1.15 billion on 195 million doses of the vaccine and is also considering a $4.8 million promotional campaign.

The Department of Health and Human Services has granted legal immunity to private pharmaceutical companies rushing to create and test the vaccine. The European Medicines Agency has even allowed pharmaceutical companies to shorten testing periods in order to start its vaccination program in August.  

These panicked efforts are eerily reminiscent of the swine flu scare of the 1970s. Due to worries of a possibly deadly pandemic, 40 million Americans were injected with a vaccine that was rushed through production and safety trials. The feared pandemic did not occur, but hundreds of cases of the inflammatory nerve disorder Guillain-Barré syndrome and 25 deaths cost the government millions of dollars in damages and resulted in a huge public backlash against the "health bureaucracy."

The current health care reform debates do not need to be further exacerbated by a vaccine scandal. The government must act with more caution and deliberation this time around, and also make sure to provide the public with unexaggerated, up-to-date information about H1N1. Hundreds of swine flu-related deaths occurred in Mexico before the Mexican  government knew how to react.  We cannot afford the slow spread of important new H1N1 information.

The White House advisory panel's alarming 90,000 estimate is "on the high side," according to officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

The chairmans of the panel variously defended the estimates, saying they were a "dose of reality" at a time of public "complacency." However, prevention should not be focused only on inciting fear and dependence on a rushed vaccine, but also on letting people know exactly what sort of threat they're facing. Each year in the United States there are about 36,000 deaths from the seasonal flu; the government needs to provide information about how swine flu compares to seasonal flu, how it is transmitted and risk factors for serious illness.

Observations of swine flu cases in the Southern Hemisphere have revealed that the pandemic itself is "moderate" according to past WHO estimates. This means that most of the infected recover without medical care and that H1N1 infection levels are similar to those of regular seasonal flu. But the phrase "moderate pandemic" in and of itself is unsettling if left unexplained. As of now, it seems that all hope for prevention lies in the frantic production of a vaccine, while all the public can do in the interim is rely on hand sanitizer and a vague sense of foreboding.

Perhaps a greater fear is that the system of healthcare in the United States will have a very difficult time dealing not only with outbreaks, but with the associated panic as well. Most people rely on mass media for quick information, and the media is often fond of blowing things out of proportion. Will hospitals be able to deal with frightened patients flooding in at the slightest sign of discomfort?

The first 40 million doses of the swine flu vaccine will be available by October. The government has a compelling interest to see people vaccinated, but it will be unfair if a glossy media campaign and exaggerated estimates of death rates are all the public has to help decide whether or not to receive the vaccine.

To ensure that history does not repeat itself, the vaccine cannot simply be rushed through clinical trials just to make a deadline. We need to take responsibility and do our own research before we get our shots.Balancing facts and fear




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