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Flu Panic

By Annalee Newitz

I CAN'T think of the last time I went through flu season without vaccine. It might have been 10 years ago, or possibly eight. That's why I found myself gripped with panic when I suddenly started seeing headlines about "the flu crisis." As I sat on the bus last week reading a sensationalistic story about it in The New York Times (albeit not by science trash queen Gina Kolata), I found myself eying the morning commuters with alarm. Each of them could be a giant bag of virus. Little viruses were floating in the air all around me, just waiting to zoom up my nose or squiggle into a microcut on my hand. I needed to get off that bus and go live in a castle like the goddamn nobility did to survive the plague!

A few days later, a friend dismissed my flu panic with an acerbic comment about people having lived with the disease for thousands of years. "I just don't see what the big deal is," she said. The big deal is that flu seriously sucks. You get horribly sick for weeks on end and think you're dying because the aches and pains and sniffles and barfing and shivering are so bad. You can't sleep; you can't be awake. Sometimes it even kills you.

Of course, most of us healthy people between the ages of 2 and 65 don't get mutilated viruses injected into our shoulder muscles because we fear death. We just don't want to get sick. The fact is, most flu is not as deadly as SARS. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimated last year that 36,000 people in the United States die from flu-related complications annually. Compare that with the 950,000 deaths annually from cardiovascular disease or (my personal favorite in the "death stats" genre) the 1,000 deaths annually from falling down stairs. Flu is hardly as menacing as you'd think.

The flu vaccine is like a biotech version of taking a shower—it's microbial hygiene. Showers aren't necessary, and we certainly did without them for millennia. Let's face it, though: people who take showers once in a while are healthier and feel better. Our cuts don't get infected; there aren't as many weird bacterial invasions of our skin; icky discharges are washed away. I don't need showers any more than I need a flu shot. But I'm happier when I have both.

I blame UC-Berkeley for hooking me on the vaccine. They gave that stuff out like it was candy. You'd just waltz into the clinic during flu-shot week, wait in line and get punctured for a couple of bucks. Later, I worked at a place where my employer made some kind of deal with a local clinic to come in and shoot us up for under $20 a pop. I'm not entirely sure they even worked; I've gotten terribly sick a couple of times over the past decade. Was it the flu? I don't know. But I always felt safer with the vaccine running through my veins.

I'm clearly in the realm of magical thinking here, as this year's "crisis" demonstrates. The shortage was triggered by the recall of more than 50 million doses of vaccine manufactured by Chiron, a California company whose vaccine supply was found to be contaminated with bacteria. So it's not exactly as if getting a shot is always the best idea. And while we're on the "not good ideas" tip, it's also not especially brilliant to allow one or two large companies to dominate the market in flu vaccine. Just one mistake, and we're left to make weird choices about whether the president should sacrifice his dose like a good American (thus risking illness and possibly leaving us in the hands of Dick Cheney), and whether it's more important for kids or the elderly to be dosed. These are the kinds of political questions I'd rather avoid.

Meanwhile, there are outbreaks of flu in California. I could be next. But I think if you gave me a choice between no more showers or no more flu vaccine, I'd chuck the vaccine. Showers rule.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who is addicted to health.

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From the October 27-November 2, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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