The disinformation about the swine flu vaccine being disseminated on cable television talk shows is an affront to science and jeopardizes public health. Families should consult their doctors, not the likes of Bill Maher and Glenn Beck, with questions about the vaccine.
The experts — such as Dr. Glenn Morris, director of the University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute, and scientists at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — are uniform in their advice. They say the vaccine is safe and will save lives. On the other side, stoking hysteria over conjured risks, are television hosts on the political right and left, Beck and Maher, who have large followings but no medical credentials.
Swine flu or the H1N1 virus has already killed more than 4,700 people, including about 1,000 in the United States. How many more people die in the United States will largely depend on the success of the vaccination program before the onset of the winter flu season.
Most who contract swine flu will easily recover, but those who end up hospitalized are at severe risk — 25 percent require intensive care and 7 percent die. Those particularly vulnerable to the virus and its complications are pregnant women, children older than six months and people who suffer from a compromised immune system. They need to be first in line, along with health care workers, as more vaccines become available.
According to Morris, mathematical models have found that if 70 percent of school students are vaccinated, the spread of seasonal flu could be curbed. But getting a 70 percent buy-in requires individuals to take some personal responsibility, even if they're not worried about surviving the swine flu. A vaccination helps halt the flu's spread to others who may be vulnerable.
Reaching such a high voluntary vaccination rate is doubly difficult when liberal HBO comedian Maher and conservative host Beck, a mainstay on Fox News, spread disinformation. Maher used two consecutive shows to raise questions about the vaccine's safety. Beck warned his viewers that the vaccine could cause an outbreak of Guillain-Barre syndrome. This kind of fearmongering belies the history of flu vaccines as one of public health's great successes.
The scare over Guillain-Barre, a neurological disease, dates to 1976 when President Gerald Ford had all Americans get a swine flu shot and the disease's prevalence seemed to increase. A 2003 review by the federal Institute of Medicine found that the increased risk of Guillain-Barre for people who had the vaccine was slight. But those risks are tiny compared with the odds of dying from the flu, which are 1 in 8,400 from seasonal flu alone.
Studies show that more recent flu vaccines are safer. This year's H1N1 vaccine has already been tested on thousands of people and was manufactured the way seasonal flu vaccines have been for decades. Tampa Bay families should base their decision on facts and science, not the latest tirade of a talk show host.