A Pandemic of Disinterest

Most of the time, public health officials complain that news media handling of medical news is shallow, sensationalistic, and otherwise long on distortions and short on science. But the headlines sparked by the flu deaths of a Minneapolis firefighter and four children in the last couple of weeks may actually be underkill, suggests Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. Osterholm has long cautioned that we're dangerously unprepared for a flu pandemic, and sooner or later we're guaranteed to have one.

Case in point: Less than a month ago, public health officials across the country were worried that millions of doses of flu vaccine would go unused this season. That would mean more cases of the flu, and more flu deaths, too. But beyond that, the glut could cause vaccine manufacturers to cut back on production next year and beyond, ultimately stymieing efforts to ramp up our capacity to produce vaccine.

According to information posted on the website for Osterholm's center, in 2002 vaccine manufacturers produced a record 95 million doses, but were left with 12 million unsold. Consequently, in 2003, producers cut back to 87 million doses. This flu season, manufacturers had shipped more than 102 million doses by the end of December.

Hundreds of people die of flu in Minnesota every year. But alarm about the deaths of the children--three of whom were otherwise healthy and unvaccinated, the other vaccinated but "medically fragile"--caused enough of a stampede to pediatricians' offices and supermarket clinics that Minnesota public health officials ordered thousands more doses of flu vaccine.

"If you want to pick all our ancestral buttons, have children die," says Osterholm. "If we'd had 10 deaths in nursing homes, this would never have made the news."