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Flu fear is in the air! Emergency rooms are swamped. Sore throat? Nasal congestion? Get thee to the hospital! Now!
We know we should believe this because the media tell us so.
Granted, very early on in this flu season there was some special cause for worry. In Australia, the flu vaccination appeared essentially a dud, providing protection for only about 10 percent of recipients. In the United States, that figure looks like about 30 percent, far below the usual coverage of 40 percent to 60 percent.
Moreover, the US flu season got off to a very early start. And it’s spread out more than normal, with states that the flu usually passes over fairly lightly nevertheless being struck. But these don’t appear to have an effect on the bottom line: sickness, hospitalizations and death.
So the media have had to play games. One trick is to publicize specific deaths that stand out precisely because they are so rare, as with the 21-year-old Pennsylvania bodybuilder whose death made world news. Do you think Britons would be reading about him if he died in a traffic accident?
Or the media find heart-tuggers like the sad death of a darling 10-year-old boy.
All that said, the low immunization rate of this year’s vaccine does shed important light on the antiquated system of trying to guess the most viral strains of next season’s epidemic to know which three or four to painstakingly grow, usually in eggs.
What’s needed is a universal vaccine that protects against a part of all flu viruses that never mutate. One vaccine and no risk of flu ever again. Clinical trials funded by Google have already begun.
Yet as Bryan Walsh at Bloomberg points out, citing an estimate by infectious-disease expert Michael Osterholm, the US government and industry spends between just $35 million and $40 million each year on universal flu vaccines, compared to the more than $1 billion a year that goes into HIV-vaccine research. And AIDS kills far fewer Americans than the mildest flu, less than 5,000 in the latest year.
So let’s set priorities rather than setting off panics.