SOME OF the same government-haters who spread myths about “death panels’’ for the elderly are now spouting misinformation about the swine flu vaccine, and they’re getting support from holistic-medicine enthusiasts, some autism activists, and talk show host Bill Maher. If all these scare tactics cause many Americans to pass up immunization, they will raise the death toll of the epidemic.
Contrary to myths spreading online, the swine flu vaccine is made the same way the vaccines for seasonal flu have been. It has been tested for safety in clinical trials. It does not contain adjuvants, additives that are used in Europe in other vaccines but have become controversial here. It does contain the preservative thimerosal, whose potential ill effects have been discounted, but parents can obtain a version without it.
Still, a CBS poll earlier this month showed that just 46 percent of Americans said they were likely to get vaccinated. In the poll, fewer than half of the parents surveyed said they were “very likely’’ to have their children get the vaccine. This is worrisome, because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that of the 5,000 Americans hospitalized with swine flu since Sept. 1, more than 53 percent have been younger than 25. The flu has caused particularly severe illness among pregnant women.
Regular seasonal flu kills about 36,000 a year, the majority of whom are older than 80. But almost 90 percent of the 292 swine flu-related deaths since Sept. 1 have been among people younger than 65. People born before 1950 are believed to have a degree of immunity to the new flu because of exposure to related influenza strains in their youth. “This is a young person’s disease,’’ said Anne Schuchat, a CDC official.
The agency’s biggest public-information challenge is likely to come in the winter when millions of people will have been inoculated, and some will inevitably be stricken with sudden illnesses. In all likelihood, their ailments will have had nothing to do with the immunization, but it will be important for health officials to confirm that fact before vaccine skeptics are able to misconstrue the cases as an indictment of the vaccine.
The CDC will learn what it means to deal with a flu epidemic in the age of the Internet and the 24/7 cable news cycle. If the agency flunks the test, expect even more Americans to fall victim to swine flu.