There's no shortage of flu fear these days. We're either afraid our children will get the flu—and mad/scared/frustrated because there's no vaccine to be found—or afraid that the vaccine will cause grievous harm. Those last fears were stoked by the story of Desiree Jennings, a 26-year-old Washington Redskins cheerleader from Ashburn, Va., who fell ill 10 days after getting a seasonal flu shot. Antivaccine activist group Generation Rescue, founded by actors Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, seized on her story, saying her apparent dystonia—manifesting itself in seizures and the inability to walk forward—was caused by the flu shot.
After the local Fox TV station here in D.C. reported Jennings's story, neurologists who saw the video (which is now a fixture on YouTube) said the symptoms didn't appear to be dystonia, a neurological disorder that causes sustained muscle spasms, but rather a psychogenic disorder, meaning the symptoms are real, but the cause is psychological. People with dystonia and the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation also spoke up; they were not happy to have their very real ailment pulled into the mix, especially since it has never been associated with the flu vaccine. Faced with the criticism, Generation Rescue pulled Jennings's story from its website.
I don't know what caused Jennings's illness, and I wish her a speedy and complete recovery, but it saddens me to see her suffering used by the news media and advocates to incite fear when none of us know what really happened to her. We humans don't like risk and uncertainty, especially when it affects the health of ourselves or those we love. So we fill in the blanks. In 2006, for instance, four people died within a day after getting seasonal flu shots in Israel. The deaths received global publicity, and many people in Israel skipped flu shots that year. The four who died were old and sick, and they probably died of heart problems, according to a study out this week in The Lancet. And statistically, 20 people in such a high-risk group could have been expected to die within 24 hours of getting a shot, the Lancet researchers said. So, did the flu vaccine cause those four people to die? Almost certainly not. The fact that they died after getting the shot was most likely a coincidence. But since we will never know with 100 percent certainty, it's not hard to wonder if there's a link, just as in the case of Desiree Jennings.
Fear can sometimes seem as transmissible as a disease. Swine flu has been topic No. 1 at the bus stop and with other mothers, and the local school listservs and parent blogs are crammed with E-mails from worried parents. Worried about H1N1 flu, worried about vaccine safety, worried about vaccine availability: It's contagious. If you're in need of evidence, consider this fascinating tidbit, soon to be published in Psychological Science, from researchers at the University of Michigan. Last spring, after swine flu first surfaced, they stationed an actor in a campus hall and told her to sneeze loudly as students passed. The researchers then interviewed the students and asked them to rate the risk of dying of a serious disease. The students who had seen the sneeze thought they were much more likely to fall ill—and also much more likely to die of a heart attack before age 50, die from a crime, or die from an accident. The fear of all deaths increased from seeing a single sneeze. And the students who saw the sneeze were also much more negative about the country's healthcare system. Irrational? Sure. Normal? Yes.
Meanwhile, there's almost no H1N1 vaccine to be found in my county this week. Parents of children with asthma and other chronic ailments that put them at higher risk have been frantically calling doctors' offices and public-health clinics, with little luck. (And the "find a flu shot" link for the county health department is broken. Grrr.)
There's been a lot of ink shed on Politico and elsewhere over whether the Obama administration overpromised on H1N1 flu vaccine delivery. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said last week that she was "naive" in believing the rosy predictions made by five companies manufacturing the vaccine. The current shortage of swine flu vaccine for children with underlying health problems risks alienating the people who most need a healthcare system they can rely on. It takes just a sneeze to make us irrationally fearful. So it's no wonder that a pandemic, a vaccine shortage, and people falling ill after flu shots, no matter what the cause, can freak us out. Public-health officials risk losing our faith if they don't embrace the fact that scientific evidence doesn't always banish fears borne on a sneeze.