Burying the Swine Flu Lede
The top dailies are too upbeat about the coming pandemic.
By Jack Shafer
Posted Friday, Sept. 11, 2009, at 8:02 PM ET
Debby's comments in Italic.
If you think that everything is going just swell with the efforts to immunize the American population against swine flu, that's because you've been reading the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, or the Los Angeles Times. Today, these papers are trumpeting the great news that a single dose of the vaccine probably will protect adults from the virus. But they bury the real lede: The vaccine may arrive too late in the United States to help all but the lucky few.
The people got wind of the fact that two injections were tauted as the way to receive full immunization and the cost kept rising. Not only financial, in these very hard times, but physically. Maybe we are being 'fed a line.' Seems he pinpoints these particular media outlets which must be getting paid off by some big organization. Who supports them?
The stories report new findings, from Australia, that one dose of the H1N1 vaccine should provide immunity in adults, which means that there ought to be enough of it to go around. (The U.S. government, with great fanfare, today heralded similar results in trials here.) The bad news, underplayed or left out of today's reports, is that it may be impossible to deliver enough of the vaccine to protect the vast majority of people who most need protection—and that widespread disease may be inevitable: The first shipments of the vaccine aren't expected to arrive until mid-October—just as the first peak of H1N1 infections is predicted.
The government tells you how to get immunity through these vaccines, then like 'Indian givers" they say, "Sorry, we don't have any for you." And don't forget it takes at least two weeks for immunity to build resistance ~ and that's if they have the matching genetic code to the constantly mutating influenza virus. Those are big odds.
Those are the findings of Science magazine reporter Jon Cohen, who has been covering the story since the virus was first indentified. Writing in Science's blog today and in this week's issue of the magazine (paid), Cohen cites the August report by the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology as well as University of Washington biostatistician Ira Longini to make his case. (Disclosure: Cohen has contributed to Slate, is a close friend of mine, and worked for me long, long ago.)
This information comes from a supposedly secure source, a writer and scientist for Science Magazine
Longini seconds (paid) the White House report's prediction that a "mismatch in timing could significantly diminish the usefulness of vaccination." His paper argues that at least 70 percent of the population—children first—must be vaccinated to effectively curb the spread of influenza. In the rosiest scenario, the H1N1 vaccine will start arriving in mid-October, conferring immunity on the vaccinated in about two weeks. But those early vaccinations will be of limited value if the epidemic is peaking at the same time they're given. As Longini and others note, that's what happened during a deadly influenza pandemic in the fall of 1957, killing an estimated 80,000 Americans.
This is a story of "timing." There are many claims which are intended to instill fear and a recollection to historical events that warrant attention. The question is are these similar scenerios? Has the world changed? Has humanity changed? Have circumstances changed? What's different and what is the same? Is this a chance for humanity to replay the scene and change the cards? Why repeat mistakes of the past?
Tamiflu and Dire Predictions
Anne Applebaum argued that the hysteria over swine flu was warranted. Marc Siegel proposed that summer camps and other institutions use Tamiflu to prevent swine flu.
Ok. Where is the information about Tamiflu? Where are the side-effects listed in this article?
Where is the Luck When the Flu Peaks in November?
If, by luck, the epidemic peaks in mid-November or mid-December, the nation is still in for trouble. In August, Longini presented a model for the coming epidemic for a Lancet conference (PDF) that predicted a massive shortfall in vaccine coverage (see Slide 21). His model assumed that two doses of the vaccine would be required per person—which still might be true for children—before news that one dose is sufficient in adults surfaced. But that hasn't changed Longini's prediction of a huge shortfall in vaccine coverage. If the current influenza pandemic mirrors the 1957 U.S. pandemic, Longini tells Cohen, the H1N1 vaccine may arrive "too late to have any effect on the pandemic."
So, now that they say one dose is enough, there is a caveat that children still need two doses. What happens if they only get one dose? Everything is based upon models. What if the numbers and parameters are off? How close are the predictions?
Talking About the Cycle of an Epidemic
The Washington Post waits until 885 words into its 1,000-word story to note that "the first Americans would not be protected until after the outbreak might have peaked." Then it drops the subject.
Basically, this says that after the epidemic is already on its way out, that's when either the vaccine will be available to more people, or those who have been vaccinated will begin to receive immunity. One might question the point of getting the vaccine when the influenza is on the downside of the cycle. We need more media attention on the natural life-cycle of an epidemic.
Peaks and Valleys
The New York Times' upbeat 900-word story reports the likelihood that the nation's 159 million high-risk people could be vaccinated "well before the flu's expected midwinter peak." This discussion of a "midwinter peak" is curious, because it's the autumn peaks that epidemiologists are most worried about. The Times reports two-thirds of the way through its piece that the vaccine won't start arriving until mid-October and then drops the subject without mentioning that the outbreak might have already peaked by then. Likewise, brief articles in the Los Angeles Times and USA Today neglect the supply and timing crisis.
Like I said, timing is everything. What I really question is the one-track mindedness of finding a solution in JUST A VACCINE. There are so many approaches to a healthy mind and body. Where are the promotions for mindful living, moving toward healthy nutritious meals for children in schools, boosting the well-being of the poor and those at risk of infection. This seems to be a main issue in every report ~ getting the vaccine to those at risk. Maybe these people just need some real supportive care. Someone to listen to their heartaches and pains. Someone to bring them a meal. Someone to hold their hand once in a while. Maybe these people at risk need clean air to breath, to find a way to stop smoking, or to get away on vacation to relax and breath deeply.
It's not as if the press corps is oblivious to the supply and time problems spelled out in the White House report. The Aug. 25 Washington Post highlighted the report's findings about the "potential mismatch in timing" of the vaccine, as did USA Today, which warned in its Aug. 25 edition that "the first doses may not become available until after the swine flu season peaks." As long as we're handing out passing grades, let's give one to the Aug. 25 Wall Street Journal, which drew attention to White House findings that the inoculation campaign would start just as the infections peaked. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times don't soft-pedal the dangers of the flu but they fail to address the peaking-in-October topic.
If the government can coordinate such a huge effort at attempting to vaccinate 159 million high-risk people and eventually 304,059,724 people in the U.S. then surely they can figure a way to help them become better educated about improving lifestyle, instituting neighborhood exercise programs, dispensing natural supplements that have been used for centuries to boost the immune system and really improving lives.
How to explain the inadequate coverage? Have reporters fallen for the Obama administration's official message that everything is going swimmingly even though the White House's big August report pointed to gut wagons filled with the dead? I'm totally befuddled. I grew up believing that reporters love to accentuate the negative. I can't be the last Gloomy Gus in the newsroom, can I?
I don't know where the author comes off with this last statement. I do not think I heard Obama ever say things were "going swimmingly," in fact, it is Obama saying we must take ACTION now to improve the state of affairs that he inherited. It was not of his making, but that does not mean he will not try to clean it up. My concern is that his advisors are also part of the old line of thought and connected with big industry and powerful monopolies. It is time for a change! YES, and that means to open our eyes to alternatives that are not involved with controlling people's lives, but allowing people to find their own solutions.
My solution is for the general population to make their voices heard and take the responsibility to care for themselves and their families with the knowledge that is available to them and trusting in self observation. If you find that herbs, wearing a smile, dancing, music, biking, gardening, socializing lifts your spirits and your emotions, then this strengthens your immune system. Love and light really can overpower the darkness.
My conclusion is that it is not the "lucky" few who will receive the vaccine. And the outcome is not based upon "luck." People are taking matters into their own hands and can make their own "luck." And that is Good!
Addendum, Sept. 12: The New York Times reports today that the swine flu vaccine won't arrive in time to "blunt the peak of this season's epidemic" in a story titled "Vaccine Supply May Miss Swine Flu Peak." It also steers away from—without acknowledging—its previous assertion about the flu's "expected midwinter peak" by quoting a Harvard epidemiologist who says, "It would be bizarre for it to peak in January or February, the way seasonal flu does."
ANH eBlast: Swine flu, mandatory vaccination and a topsy turvy world
Here is another article questioning mandatory vaccination versus freedom of choice.