Volume 74, Number 26 | October 27 - November 03 , 2004

The flu vaccine mess: How many of us will end up dying?

By Keith Crandell

A great many Americans will die this winter as a result of the mammoth, preventable failure in our flu vaccine sourcing. Of this there can be no question. The question is how many? And who? And what’s to be done?

I went for a periodic checkup at my physician’s office last week. I asked him, How many additional deaths? He thought for a few moments, and then said, “Twenty thousand.”

Twenty thousand additional Americans may well die because of a huge shortage of flu vaccine. This seems like a moderate estimate considering that in an ordinary year 36,000 Americans die from influenza and 200,000 people are hospitalized. His estimate may be a bit high or a bit low; but it is an estimate from a sophisticated, experienced member of the medical profession. There is little doubt that people over 70 and under 3 will be heavily represented in the total. Their loss will be less dramatic than the losses of 9/11. They will slip off quietly. There will be obits in the local newspapers. Parents will mourn their children; widowers and widows and middle-aged survivors will arrange for their parents’ funerals.

Twenty thousand people! They will die as a result of a crisis that, according to Dr. Irwin Redlener, associate dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia and director of its national center for disaster preparedness, “could have been averted.”

Talk about bio-terrorism! Health experts have warned for years that the crisis was coming, that the number of vaccine suppliers was dwindling. Now we may easily lose more Americans to the flu vaccine crisis than we lost to the 9/11 tragedies and the war in Iraq combined. George Bush and his crowd make Osama bin Laden look like a piker.

At the beginning of October, after years of decline, only two vaccine makers were left to supply the 85 million doses required by Americans. Then one, a British supplier, dropped out. So now the U.S. has only one. One supplier for all of America! (Britain, wiser than the U.S. has five suppliers.)

The failure of the Bush administration to meet the completely predictable needs of its citizens for flu vaccine is a grotesque breach of national security. If Osama or Saddam or some Taliban mullah had perpetrated such a foul act on America, what punishment would we be prepared to carry out?

Meanwhile, what can be done? Sanctimonious George Bush says that he will forego his flu shot. My own doctor, who had no vaccine, told me he would put me at the head of his list and urged me to call the city Department of Health. I called them last Wednesday. I left a message explaining that I was a codger in need for flu shots. Nobody has called me back. Today, I’ll be hustling the streets, following rumors, trying to avoid becoming one of the 20,000.

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