Me­dia stars fuel swine flu vac­cine fears

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY SONNY BUNCH

In­ter­view­ing for­mer Se­nate ma­jor­ity leader and famed sur­geon Bill Frist re­cently for his HBO talk show, “Real Time With Bill Ma­her,” the host de­clared, “I would never get a swine flu vac­cine or any vac­cine.”

Mr. Ma­her, re­cently hon­ored with the Richard Dawkins Award as the fig­ure in the arts and me­dia who, among other things, best “ad­vo­cates in­creased sci­en­tific knowl­edge,” re­fused to be swayed by Dr. Frist’s as­sur­ances — re­flect­ing the pro­fes­sional med­i­cal con­sen­sus — that the vac­cine is safe and ef­fec­tive.

Mr. Ma­her is not alone. Over the past few weeks, sev­eral prom­i­nent talk-show hosts from across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum have stoked pub­lic anx­i­ety about the swine flu vac­cine.

Rush Lim­baugh was de­fi­ant on his Oct. 7 show, de­mand­ing, “How are they go­ing to make me take it if I refuse to take it?”

Glenn Beck was slightly more cir­cum­spect, say­ing on his Sept. 30 pro­gram that “you don’t know if this is gonna cause neu­ro­log­i­cal dam­age.”

Sim­i­lar fears about the vac­cine have led the Depart­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices to cre­ate a Web site coun­ter­ing myths and ru­mors about the swine flu virus with facts.

“I think the one thing that is wor­ri­some is that those who are crit­i­cal of vac­ci­na­tion of­ten do not base their opin­ions on sound sci­en­tific in­for­ma­tion,” says Tom Skin­ner, the se­nior pub­lic af­fairs of­fi­cer at the fed­eral Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion (CDC). “At the end of the day, we sim­ply want peo­ple to base their de­ci­sions on cred­i­ble in­for­ma­tion. The best an­ti­dote for fear is in­for­ma­tion.”

Dr. San­jay Gupta, a neu­ro­sur­geon and CNN med­i­cal re­porter, agrees.

“There are two things that are sort of at play here in terms of peo­ple’s re­sis­tance re­gard­ing the vac­cine,” he said. “One is the con­cern that they haven’t done enough safety stud­ies and two that [this flu] isn’t a big deal.”

Dr. Gupta, au­thor of the new book “Cheat­ing Death” and host of its com­pan­ion doc­u­men­tary,

Call­ing out Health and Hu­man Ser vices Sec­re­tary Kath­leen Se­be­lius by name, conser va­tive broad­cast­ing icon Rush Lim­baugh thun­dered over the air­waves: “I am not go­ing to take it, pre­cisely be­cause you’re now telling me I must. It’s not your role, it’s not your re­spon­si­bil­ity, and you do not have that power. I don’t want to take your vac­cine.”

“An­other Day: Cheat­ing Death,” says he seeks to ac­knowl­edge le­git­i­mate con­cerns without fu­el­ing un­founded fears.

Though Dr. Gupta de­clined to spec­u­late about the mo­tiva- tions of other me­dia pro­fes­sion­als who have struck out against the vac­cine, he said he ac­cepts “a re­spon­si­bil­ity as a med­i­cal doc­tor who’s also a re­porter to re­port the best sci­ence that I can find and make a case at the end of it for all peo­ple.”

Mr. Ma­her couched his crit­i­cism of the vac­cine in terms of a broader right-left al­liance sus- pi­cious of gov­ern­ment med­dling in health care.

“On this ques­tion, I think I would prob­a­bly be more with conser va­tives,” Mr. Ma­her avowed to Dr. Frist. “Con­ser­va­tives al­ways say [. . . ] ‘They’re go­ing to screw ev­ery­thing up. So why would you let them be the ones to stick a dis­ease into your arm?’ “

Tevi Troy, deputy sec­re­tary of health and hu­man ser­vices in the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion and vis­it­ing se­nior fel­low at the con­ser­va­tive Hud­son In­sti­tute, took is­sue with this char­ac­ter­i­za­tion.

“I would say, per­haps, you can’t trust the gov­ern­ment for the ad­min­is­tra­tion of health care, and that’s why I’m con­cerned about the pub­lic op­tion,” said Mr. Troy, “but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t very good sci­en­tists at the CDC, at the [Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion], at the [Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health] who help us de­velop cures and who help us plan our pub­lic health care re­sponses to bio­events.”

Mr. Troy wor­ries about the sphere of pub­lic health de­volv­ing into a par­ti­san bat­tle­ground. “It seems like there’s Repub­li­can in­for­ma­tion and Demo­cratic in­for­ma­tion, and I think that’s what leads to some of th­ese con­tro­ver­sies” over health care, he says. “There’s a sense that it’s not some ca­reer of­fi­cial at a pub­lic health ser­vice telling you this, but it’s the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion telling you this.”

Mr. Lim­baugh’s re­sponse to calls from Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­re­tary Kath­leen Se­be­lius to get vac­ci­nated il­lus­trate Mr. Troy’s con­cerns about par­ti­san­ship col­or­ing pub­lic health dis­cus­sions.

Call­ing out the sec­re­tary by name, the con­ser­va­tive broad­cast­ing icon thun­dered over the air­waves: “I am not go­ing to take it, pre­cisely be­cause you’re now telling me I must. It’s not your role, it’s not your re­spon­si­bil­ity, and you do not have that power. I don’t want to take your vac­cine.”

What’s needed, Mr. Troy ar­gues, is a brack­et­ing off of tech­ni­cal med­i­cal ques­tions re­lat­ing to pub­lic health from more de­bat­able pol­icy dif­fer­ences. He’d like to see, he says, pub­lic of­fi­cials as­sume a “kind of re­spon­si­bil­ity to de­clare th­ese ar­eas a no-fight­ing or neu­tral­ity zone, say we’re not go­ing to fight par­ti­san pol­i­tics about swine flu, that we’re go­ing to say this is the right thing to do and press for­ward from there.”

Swine flu vaccines have lit­tle sup­por t among TV and ra­dio hosts such as Bill Ma­her (left). He de­clared on his HBO show “Real Time With Bill Ma­her” that he “would never get a swine flu vac­cine or any vac­cine.” Rush Lim­baugh (cen­ter) was equally de­fi­ant when he ques­tioned what would hap­pen if he re­fused to get vac­ci­nated. Glenn Beck (right) sug­gested the vac­cine could “cause neu­ro­log­i­cal dam­age.”

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