Newspaper logo

COMMENTARY:

A New Flu Nightmare

by James Ridgeway
First published in his blog Unsilent Generation earlier today, 24 November 2009

The vaccine program is yet another clear example of Washington’s irresponsible approach to the nation’s public health. Like Wall Street, the medical profession has never believed in regulation, instead choosing to nudge—not force—state health officials and industry into taking action.

One theory behind the government’s decision to skip providing vaccine to older people is that we built up such an immunity in earlier flu bouts, we’ll never get it. But swine flu is not the problem here. The scare over swine flu has led to an all out demand for flu shots—any kind of flu shot. As a result we are heading into another crisis as the New York Times reported Monday:

Federal health officials are trying to shift supplies of the seasonal flu vaccine away from chain pharmacies and supermarkets to nursing homes, hoping to counter a shortage that threatens to cause a wave of deaths this winter among the nation’s most vulnerable population. The extent of the shortage is still unclear, but Janice Zalen, director of special programs for the American Health Care Association, which represents 11,000 nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, called it “a very big problem.”

Ms. Zalen said that of 1,000 nursing home managers who responded to a survey of the association’s 11,000 members, 800 reported they could not get enough vaccine.

Dr. Carol Friedman, head of adult immunization at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said she did not have a figure for the size of the shortage, but added, “It’s a problem, and it’s all over the country.”

And the reason for the shortage—as in the past—lies with the flu vaccine manufacturers,whose operations, the government just can’t seem to regulate:

A nationwide shortage of the seasonal flu vaccine has been reported for several weeks, but nursing homes and their suppliers have grown more alarmed in recent days. Of the 36,000 Americans who die of seasonal flu in the average year, more than 90 percent are 65 or older, and nursing home outbreaks are particularly deadly. By contrast, the swine flu epidemic has been most deadly among younger people.....

The five companies licensed to make flu shots for the United States originally planned to make only slightly more than the 118 million they made in 2008. Then, production problems caused GlaxoSmithKline to cut its run by half; Novartis’s shrank by 10 percent. Then all five companies had to switch over early to making swine flu vaccine.

The vaccine program is yet another clear example of Washington’s irresponsible, reckless, approach to the nation’s public health. Put bluntly, serious regulation does not exist. In part, that is because the medical profession which long has dominated the US Public Health Service, has never believed in regulation, instead choosing to nudge—not force—state health officials and industry into taking action.

It’s just not the way docs do business, forcing one another to act.Instead they confer, talk about it over dinner or on the golf course. The very thought of one doc telling another what to do is just, well, unprofessional, uncivilized. Everything is voluntary. That’s the history of our lousy national health system. And today application of forceful regulation is an underlying current running through the entire health reform debate.


Born in 1936, James Ridgeway has been reporting on politics for more than 45 years. He is currently Senior Washington Correspondent for Mother Jones, and recently wrote a blog on the 2008 presidential election for the Guardian online. He previously served as Washington Correspondent for the Village Voice; wrote for Ramparts and The New Republic; and founded and edited two independent newsletters, Hard Times and The Elements.

Ridgeway is the author of 16 books, including The Five Unanswered Questions About 9/11, It’s All for Sale: The Control of Global Resources, and Blood in the Face: The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads, and the Rise of a New White Culture. He co-directed a companion film to Blood in the Face and a second documentary film, Feed, and has co-produced web videos for GuardianFilms.

Additional information and samples of James Ridgeway’s work can be found on his web site, http://jamesridgeway.net.

This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.



Copyright © 2009 The Baltimore News Network. All rights reserved.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

Baltimore News Network, Inc., sponsor of this web site, is a nonprofit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed in stories posted on this web site are the authors' own.

This story was published on November 24, 2009.