Monday, December 20, 2004

Flu Away

Remember that flu vaccine shortage, when Americans learned that a major manufacturer of vaccine had screwed up, and we had only half the doses we ordered this year?

If you were listening to the news back in October, this was a major issue, possibly the biggest health-care crisis to hit the United States since ... well, since ever. Democrats blamed Republicans, of course. For them, the shortage was one more example of how conservatives shortchange necessary social programs. Republicans, in turn, blamed Democrats for Clinton-era legislation that "socialized" the vaccine industry, which reduced the number of suppliers. Ordinary Americans were flocking to Canada, lining up inside airports and hotel lobbies, to get the coveted vaccination. In cities and small towns, people stood in line for hours, Soviet-style, and in some areas angry mobs started to riot when the vaccines ran out. All of this was proof that government needed to get out of the health-care business for real -- or, conversely, that it needed to make a commitment to socialized medicine instead of flirting with it here and there.

One thing on which almost everyone seemed to agree, was that without an adequate supply of flu vaccine we'd see massive outbreaks of disease. By all accounts, we should be dropping dead in the streets by now.

But we're not. This year's flu season has been unusually mild so far -- far milder than last year, in fact, when there was no shortage and everybody got sick anyway. Some states even report a surplus of vaccine.

So what happened?

First of all, the actual shortage of vaccine was far less dire than many of us thought. The US government doesn't use all the 100 million doses it orders, and a substantial amount of vaccine is discarded each year. The fact that we always order too much vaccine cushioned the blow when supplies fell short. Rationing by state and local health authorities ensured that most of the people who truly needed the vaccine (young children, the elderly, persons with immunodeficiencies) would receive it. Those who were not permitted to receive injections still had access to oral vaccines, which the government does not distribute, and which were not affected by the shortage.

All of this explains why the vaccine shortage wasn't a public health disaster, but none of it explains why this year's flu season has been so much milder than last year's.

The real story, unreported and largely unseen, is that individual Americans have changed their behavior. Instead of hoping that a vaccine will keep them from getting sick, they're taking responsibility for their overall health, and trying to prevent flu outbreaks altogether. This Christmas, you see fewer sick and feverish shoppers -- or employees, for that matter -- at the local mall. More people wash their hands with soap when they use a public restroom. Children stay at home when they're "under the weather," instead of going to school and spreading the disease to all their friends. My friends are drinking orange juice, taking zinc pills and Vitamin C, all to ward off the dreaded flu. It seems to be working.

To think, gentle reader, that a vaccine shortage caused by so many complicated factors should ultimately be resolved by simple things like soap, water and personal responsibility. Why, it's enough to make one believe that self-interested individuals might be able to discover solutions to social problems without the aid of government.

But we know better than that, don't we?

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