Thursday 24 September 2020

subtype h1n1

Via Miss Cellania’s Links, we are directed to a retrospective article that speaks to the halo effect and hindsight bias that we explored recently through the heuristic of 1976 Swine Flu outbreak and subsequent fiasco that shows how important robust journalism and science communication and accounts for what preconceptions might inform decisions and direction. The close dissection of this immunisation campaign, which saw about a quarter of the US population vaccinated, buffeted by particularly lethal seasonal outbreaks and a deadly cluster of Legionnaire’s Disease (first thought to be the uncontrolled spread people were fraught over) earlier that same summer had primed the public and health care professionals for action, ready to combat a pandemic that did not ultimately materialise. The advances in epidemiology that we enjoy today would have resulted in different responses back then but miscommunication and disinformation mangled the public health response and while not singularly sowing distrust and giving rise to anti-expert and sceptical movements that have plagued societies for decades (possibly also influencing the much more lax response to the AIDS crisis), missteps in execution gave agitators and detractors enough material to line their sophistical quivers and continue with the de-substantiation.

In January of that year, several soldiers stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey came down with a respiratory illness—with one new recruit unfortunately dying whilst trying to power through an endurance test while sick—and authorities including the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organisation were alerted. Fearful of a repeat of the 1918 Influenza pandemic, a mass-immunisation programme was recommended by an expert panel that included Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin and put into implementation by President Gerald Ford. Practised as they were with developing and manufacturing seasonal flu vaccines, there is always some element of risk and the pharmaceutical companies wanted protection from liability during this rush to roll out millions of doses and refused to produce the immunisation when at first the government withheld indemnity protection. This news, telegraphed to the public, planted a seed of doubt to attribute every medical coincidence and co-morbidity to the novel disease and cure. As happens every year, a small percentage of those vaccinated have adverse reactions, ranging from mild side-effects to death and the scope of the campaign magnified the frequency for the public and press. Hopefully we have drawn some lessons from this incident that better equip us to protect ourselves and one another and filter out the noise that stokes fear and chaos and only further defers our pulling through.