Dealing Sensibly with H1N1

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday November 05, 2009 - 09:27:00 AM

In the last week we’ve been deluged with press releases and even proffered op-eds from quasi-medical providers who want to publicize their contrarian views on the need for swine flu vaccine, hopefully creating a profit opportunity for themselves in the process. This just in: the Planet is open to all legitimate opinions, but not to junk science, not even junk science embellished with strings of faux footnotes.  

There are not two equally valid points of view on many scientific topics: not on planetary motion in the universe, not on the general shape of the earth, not on evolution, not on climate change, or even on the need for susceptible people to get vaccinations to be protected from the H1N1 virus. But when we declined to publish an “opinion” on the imagined dangers of the vaccine, we got this sarcastic response from the writer: “I think you’re right. It’s more important to save lives in Palestine than in Berkeley.” 

Just to be sure, I checked the facts I’d gleaned from a variety of authoritative national sources with a local authority, Wendel Brunner, M.D. (and he also has a Ph.D. in Biophysics). He’s the health director of Contra Costa County, and his wife warned me that he might be too busy frantically organizing vaccination clinics even to talk to me, but he kindly called me back. He made a number of key points, all of which we’ve heard before but which bear repeating. 

First, it’s not yet a pandemic, but there are more than 10,000 cases nationwide so far. Second, the most vulnerable groups are pregnant women, kids and people with asthma and similar chronic diseases or compromised immune systems. They should be getting their vaccinations first. 

“The vaccine is manufactured in the same way as the seasonal flu vaccine,” he said, “and itss extremely safe.” He pointed out that a previous vaccine produced for an earlier epidemic of another disease also popularly called “swine flu” was completely different in origin and manufacture. That one did have reported side effects, and just to be sure, he said, there’s “extreme surveillance” going on right now of the H1N1 vaccine “as there always is” with any vaccine. 

Dr. Brunner’s not just a physician, he’s a political person, a veteran of the Free Speech Movement. I asked him what he thought of a story prominently featured on the front page of the New York Times on October 28 under the headline “Shortage of Vaccine Poses Political Test for Obama.”  

This was the lead: “The moment a novel strain of swine flu emerged in Mexico last spring, President Obama instructed his top advisers that his administration would not be caught flat-footed in the event of a deadly pandemic. Now, despite months of planning and preparation, a vaccine shortage is threatening to undermine public confidence in government, creating a very public test of Mr. Obama’s competence.” 

Wendel took the words out of my mouth on this one. “All he has to do is walk on water,” he quipped. 

My sentiments exactly. The national press hyped the idea that Barack Hussein Obama was the Messiah for a few months—it’s just a year since the election—and now it’s shocked, shocked that he has yet to turn water into wine in the Middle East, or produce loaves and fishes to pay for national health care.  

There’s a very simple scientific explanation for why there’s not as much vaccine available as we’d like as yet. The H1N1 virus that will be turned into vaccine has to grow in chicken eggs, and it’s taking its own sweet time: even President Obama can’t command it to increase and multiply any faster.  

Possible deficiencies at the Centers for Disease Control don’t alter this central fact, but in any case problems there date back to cutbacks under the administration of G. W. Bush (remember him?) This is not “a very public test of Mr. Obama’s competence” as the fatuous Times writer would like to claim. The CDC needs to have its funding restored where it’s been cut, but that won’t remedy this current crisis.  

There are worldwide problems in public health that are at work too, well-documented. For a very complete analysis, read The Coming Plague, written several years ago by Laurie Garrett—who started out more years ago at KPFA. The H1N1 situation could get worse, but it hasn’t yet. 

There are two dissonant messages that a responsible press should be communicating under the circumstances: those who need it should get the vaccine, which is safe and effective, but there’s not yet enough to go around, though no one’s to blame for that. Even Capitalism and its dread minions the insurance companies couldn’t grow viruses in eggs any faster than Mother Nature even if they tried.  

A deeply cynical friend who’s afraid to be quoted by name suggested what he thought the paper should tell those who have been inveighing against the H1N1 vaccine. “It’s the Darwin Solution,” he said. “There’s not enough vaccine to go around, is there? So tell them that if you don’t trust it, don’t get it, and the gene pool will benefit in the end.”  

Of course, that’s the kind of smartass science we can’t endorse, but it’s mighty tempting, at least where adults are concerned. But since it’s children who are most at risk, instead we urge those responsible for their care to believe the real scientists and get the kids their H1N1 vaccinations.