Amanda Ripley

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Swine Flu Vaccine: Competing Narratives

5th Oct 2009 posted in Disaster Behavior

Michael Specter has a piece in the New Yorker about how dangerous, anti-vaccine rumors may be threatening the campaign to vaccinate Americans against H1N1. It’s interesting, especially the bit about Bill Maher’s bizarre Tweet, but the piece feels premature to me…

At the moment, the bigger problem with the vaccine is that nobody knows when or where they can get it. The first doses just came out this week, and the feds are leaving it up to the states and locals to distribute them. Just like in most emergencies, your experience will depend almost entirely on how competent (and well-funded) your local officials are. Or, as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius recently explained:

“We’ll never, from the mother ship, give one national picture. It’s going to be many, many local decisions.”

Welcome to the theme for this fall. Local, local, local. While it may make sense for the federal government to provide clear and specific direction, it ain’t gonna happen. Federalism makes hard things harder…

For now, confusion—and demand—seem to be swamping conspiracy and condemnation. As the New York Times reports today, pediatricians’ offices are currently being overwhelmed with calls from concerned parents who just want to know when, where and whether to vaccinate their kids. The problem is, nobody at the doctors’ offices knows the answers yet… And anyone who has been to a pediatrician’s office knows that it is the last place to expect agile customer service. So what we have now is a lot of irritated receptionists and frustrated parents.

There is a powerful anti-vaccine movement that may jeopardize this unprecedented public-health quest, but I don’t see it happening just yet. However, there’s still lots of time!

For now, parents who are baffled can find out (some) info from the CDC’s new brochure (warning: pdf) for parents—preciously subtitled in crayon font.

While I’m at it, here’s an updated advisory for pregnant women, also from the CDC.