October 06, 2004

Flu vaccine shortage

In 1918, the world suffered through an influenza pandemic that killed close to 40 million people. This was before the increased transmissibility made possible by air travel.

If a similar plague came by today it would kill about 1.5 million Americans. That is more than die each year from the ten major killers combined, like cancer, heart disease, strokes, Alzheimer's disease, and AIDS, for example.
For at least the second year in a row, we're going to be short of flu vaccine. Some doctors and others accuse the government of failing to take action:
"The vaccine shortages have not been addressed for the past 10 years," said Dr. J. Colin Forrester of Callao, Va.

Dr. Michael Good of Middletown, Conn., said he can't understand why the problem was not addressed years ago. "Since this has been a problem almost every winter for the past four years, isn't it time we figure out a way to consistently procure and produce vaccine?"

As long ago as the winter of 2000-2001, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a series of reports describing breakdowns in the nation's flu shot program, which the newspaper described as "as unstable as it is huge."

In some ways, this looks like a straightforward technological problem. Flu vaccine is incubated in sterile chicken eggs, which are susceptible to contamination and can therefore spread disease. We need to find a better way to manufacture the vaccine. Government should perhaps do more to encourage research in this area, especially when resources are available.

Whether or not resources are available is a political issue. Will the resources be available now that we've unilaterally invaded Iraq, spent more than $50 billion to date, and find ourselves in a quagmire that we can't simply abandon? Will the resources be available if we continue to spend like drunken sailors on a space-based missile defense system, which won't do much to protect us from nuclear weapons?

The problems with our public health infrastructure are political issues. President Bush has shown no leadership on this issue, even after September 11 and the increased concern over bioterrorism. He continues to think that space-based missile defense and unilateral invasions of nations that posed no imminent threat to America take precedence over real threats to our health and safety.

It's time to give George W. Bush the heave-ho.

Posted by Carey at October 6, 2004 09:47 PM