A Government by the Irresponsible and for the Irresponsible

We know the accepted narrative by now: Swine flu is potentially deadly. Pharmaceutical companies in partnership with the government have made a heroic effort to get a vaccine ready for mass immunization. Anyone who does not take the vaccine is endangering the public health.

In their must read essay, “Does the Vaccine Matter?” in the November issue of The Atlantic, Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer ask: “But what if everything we think we know about fighting influenza is wrong? What if flu vaccines do not protect people from dying—particularly the elderly, who account for 90 percent of deaths from seasonal flu?”

Brownlee and Lenzer don’t ask these questions rhetorically. They cite specific medical studies that call into question the entire flu shot mythology. Alarmingly, they give a glimpse into the power of the flu lobby. Lisa Jackson, is a physician and senior investigator with the Group Health Research Center in Seattle. When she began to question studies which claimed astonishing benefits from the flu vaccine, she related her experience to  Brownlee and Lenzer: “People told me, ‘No good can come of [asking] this.’” She was warned, “‘Potentially a lot of bad could happen’ for me professionally by raising any criticism that might dissuade people from getting vaccinated, because of course, ‘We know that vaccine works.’ This was the prevailing wisdom.”

When you read the essay by Brownlee and Lenzer you ask yourself, “What is motivating those who push the flu vaccines?” Many clearly are sincere professionals who believe in what they do. But others deserve the title that Lila Rajiva gave them: “Swine Floozies.” Rajiva defines a swine floozy: “A cheap tart who’ll sell you anything to make a buck…They sell you government cures. In almost all cases, these cures are worse than the disease.”

“Government cures”? “Aren’t the vaccines developed by free-market pharmaceutical companies?” you might wonder. It is no free-market when your primary customer is the government, and when in July, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius “granted both the vaccine makers and government immunity from lawsuits that could result from the swine flu vaccine.”

The best judges of risk are the actuaries who work for insurance companies. Why is it difficult to buy insurance for beachfront property in a hurricane zone? The simple answer is that there is a large risk of loss. In a free-market, there would be no government insurance in hurricane zones. You would agree to take the risk or buy insurance at a prohibitively high price. Would there be less development? Of course! And that’s how it should be.

Would there be less swine flu vaccine without government involvement? The answer, as with housing development in a hurricane zone, is “yes.” Individuals who wanted to take the vaccine anyway would be free to sign a waiver that released the pharmaceutical company from potential damages. Or, alternatively, pharmaceutical companies could produce vaccines that insurance companies recognize as safe. I won’t debate the safety of the swine flu vaccine, but for me the judgments of the insurance companies are compelling.

Brownlee and Lenzer ask a second critical question: “And what if the expensive antiviral drugs that the government has stockpiled over the past few years also have little, if any, power to reduce the number of people who die or are hospitalized?” Their answer:

As with vaccines, the scientific evidence for Tamiflu and Relenza is thin at best. In its general-information section, the CDC’s Web site tells readers that antiviral drugs can “make you feel better faster.” True, but not by much. On average, Tamiflu (which accounts for 85 to 90 percent of the flu antiviral-drug market) cuts the duration of flu symptoms by twenty-four hours in otherwise healthy people. In exchange for a slightly shorter bout of illness, as many as one in five people taking Tamiflu will experience nausea and vomiting. About one in five children will have neuropsychiatric side effects, possibly including anxiety and suicidal behavior. Between 2001 and 2007 in Japan, where Tamiflu is liberally prescribed, the drug may have been responsible for 50 deaths from cardiopulmonary arrest, according to Rokuro Hama, the chair of the Japan Institute of Pharmacovigilance.

Indeed, Japan has banned the use of Tamiflu for teenagers after several kids jumped out of windows while on the drug. Yet, in spite of its dubious effectiveness, billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent stockpiling these drugs– another boondoggle for the pharmaceutical companies. Rajiva gives us “Tami-Floozy”—“Tami-Floozies make a direct killing from investing in the drugs sold to cure the diseases hyped by the other floozies. Donald Rumsfeld is the best-known of the type.”

Brownlee and Lenzer explain how vaccination may be counterproductive:

In the U.S., by contrast, our reliance on vaccination may have the opposite effect: breeding feelings of invulnerability, and leading some people to ignore simple measures like better-than-normal hygiene, staying away from those who are sick, and staying home when they feel ill. Likewise, our encouragement of early treatment with antiviral drugs will likely lead many people to show up at the hospital at first sniffle.

Brownlee and Lenzer are too kind. This feeling of invulnerability leads people to continue their irresponsible ways and to become potential breeding grounds for disease. Nothing we can do will guarantee health, but there are steps we can take that tilt the odds in our favor. Sugar laden diets suppress the immunological system, while exercise boosts it. This year, the average American will eat over 200 pounds of disease-promoting sugar and corn syrup and will consuming only about 8 pounds of disease-fighting broccoli. They will drink their sugar laden sodas and eat their desserts while watching propaganda programs instructing them to be properly terrified of the flu. The stress induced from these fear-laced programs further compromises the body’s immunological system.

I would never presume to know what is right for anybody else, but it is simply a fact that millions of people who take little responsibility for maintaining their health will be lining up for their vaccines. If Brownlee and Lenzer are correct, at best, we have done no better than to waste billions and to encourage irresponsible behavior. We have the irresponsible government that our irresponsible behavior deserves.


9 Responses to A Government by the Irresponsible and for the Irresponsible

  1. James D says:

    I currently work in public health. While I am not a medical professional, I see the amount of effort gov’t is putting into the vaccination program and the public’s sometimes tepid, sometimes hyper reaction to it. We jokingly call it the swine sniffle. When we see the comparison in the death counts between the regular seasonal flu and the swine flu its interesting to note that the seasonal flu numbers are the typical deaths for the 4 month period the seasonal flu is active, but the swine flu deaths are typically tallied from April, when we first started taking notice of it. Not exactly comparing apples to apples.
    People fear the comparisons to the 1918 Spanish Influenza, and if that were recurring, their fears would be well founded. But most people don’t even remember the 1957 or 1968 influenzas, because it wasn’t particularly bad. Barry, you are absolutely right in asserting that taking better care of ourselves in general would produce better health outcomes than this vaccination program is likely to.
    Somehow, given where I work, I don’t think spreading this blog around would be good for my career!

  2. James D says:

    Its also interesting to note that 18 months ago we were all worried about the Avian flu. Whoops, looks like Mother Nature fooled us again. Or, more accurately, we deluded ourselves into thinking we can predict what’s going on.

  3. Jim,

    Your comment: “Somehow, given where I work, I don’t think spreading this blog around would be good for my career!” is sadly so true. Brownlee is a respected journalist/author noted for her in depth investigations. What does it say about the health care industry that open inquiry is so difficult?

  4. Frankvv says:

    My son who lives in Canada suggested that the correct name for the Swine flu is “Bacon’s Revenge”. He’s not a 100% vegitarian, but darn close. At any rate, I found the comment stating that the”Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius ‘granted both the vaccine makers and government immunity from lawsuits that could result from the swine flu vaccine'” to be downright scary! Let’s inject the entire nation with an active germ and see what happens. If everyone gets sick, oops, I guess our formula was wrong! If they all die c’est la vie. I think I may have to think twice about getting my seasonal flu shot; and more importantly, the really untested Bacon’s Revenge injection.

  5. Frank,

    It is literally impossible for any one individual to be certain on the issue of safety which is why the work of the insurance industry is so valuable. There are many cautionary essays which can be found about the potential hazards of the vaccine. Here is one. Weighing the benefits and costs of a vaccine is a complex decision best done by the individual and not by government.

  6. Chris C. says:

    Coincidentally, I was at my doctor’s office yesterday (for a minor injury), and he asked me if I was getting a flu shot. I replied, “Only if they hold me down.”

  7. Chris,

    If the stock market tanks and the social mood becomes more fearful we may well see mandatory vaccinations proposed/implemented.

  8. Steve P says:

    It seems to me that public fear of swine flu, and the urgent sounding main stream media warnings which helped feed the fear, was actually more intense last spring when most of the reported H1N1 cases were in Mexico and no deaths had yet occured in the USA. Presently, however, public concern seems much more muted, despite the growing number of H1N1 cases in the USA and deaths occuring as a result. This makes no logical sense unless one compares the level of the stock market indices between then and now.

  9. Exactly Steve. That is why I am very concerned about what type of draconian policies the public will accept (of course not just about the flu) once the stock market turns down again. Perhaps a countervailing force will be that mistrust of the government will be growing too.

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