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Well, here we are.  The Swine Flu is sweeping over the country like an invisible Tsunami, or maybe like an invisible Katrina.  Several months ago the government – CDC etc  – promised that they were on top of the situation and there would be plenty of flu vaccine available.   “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job.” Doesn’t this seem sort of like deja vu all over again? I mean, during Katrina it was – at first anyway – difficult to tell whether the government just didn’t care or if they were just sublimely incompetent.  Now we know.

OK.  Now we have a new government in place. We all knew last spring that the Swine flu was spreading around the world and that it would be coming around here again in the fall. Well, it’s the fall.  Several months ago our government told us that there would be plenty of flu vaccine around, and remember, at the time no one knew whether the H1N1 flu would be morphing into something very deadly, like its cousin the 1918 flu pandemic that killed millions of people worldwide. So, there was a lot of concern and we were assured that there would be a lot of vaccine available.  But there isn’t.

As of today, the H1N1 flu is widespread in just about all the states. Meanwhile there is precious little vaccine available. It appears that the flu might even have peaked in some areas. So, how are things going at the CDC?  It seems they are confused. They thought they were going to have plenty of vaccine – but they don’t. So what happened? Did someone drop the eggs? How can we go from expecting maybe 100 million doses to be available to hoping for 42 million by mid-November? How can we be at the peak of the flu and have only 16 million doses available right now? There are 300 million people in this country.  And if you get a flu shot today, how long does it take before you have built up immunity to the flu? It doesn’t happen overnight.

There are only two conclusions that can be drawn from the H1N1 vaccine debacle – either our government doesn’t care or it is incompetent. There is an amazing similarity between the Katrina catastrophe and this – at least in the way the government has reacted. The primary difference is that the flu is not nearly as deadly as it might have been had it morphed – scant comfort, I suppose, to those whose children have already died from the H1N1.

One would have thought we had learned a lesson from Katrina, but it seems we didn’t – at least the elephantine U.S. government didn’t.  How could they not know there wouldn’t be sufficient supplies of vaccine? Were the manufacturers lying to them? Did anybody actually bother to do a calculation to see how much vaccine would be available on any given day? Have the people who work for the government ever heard of a spreadsheet?  Do they have any idea how to use a computer to project future supply and demand? I don’t think so.

We are simply at the mercy of an incompetent, uncaring assortment of Civil Servants who couldn’t care less if they rescue people from Hurricanes or germs or anything else for that matter. And where is the Presidential anger?  Where is the Presidential outrage at this gross incompetence? Where is my CHANGE? Why isn’t there any foresight, why no vision, why no imagination? Who is responsible for asking, “What if?” What if this had turned out to be a very deadly flu variant, as in 1918? It happened once – it will certainly – CERTAINLY – happen again. Don’t these people get it?

We lucked out this time. There are plenty of embarrassed, red faces in DC, but there should instead be plenty of embarrassed red faces out on the streets of DC.  But that will never happen because when you are a Civil Servant you have a job for life come Hell, High Water, or the Flu.  Nobody takes responsibility or gets blamed for anything – ever.

The problem is this: we have an incompetent government that is unable to protect the people of this country. It was demonstrated in Katrina and it has been demonstrated again with H1N1. Change is needed like never before, but it hasn’t come where it is needed most – inside the halls of government where intelligent, crucial, lifesaving decisions are supposed to be made, but they aren’t.

That is the lesson of the H1N1 vaccine debacle.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the swine flu is now “widespread” in the majority of states in the U.S. In those states where it is not officially “widespread” it is mostly categorized as either “regional” or “local”.  In other words, its pretty much everywhere – right now.  Today, the very first swine flu doses of vaccine are being distributed to health workers. This is only a very small batch of vaccine, the amount of vaccine that could be used to inoculate most of the U.S. population is still far off, and it is unlikely that the huge amounts of the vaccine will be available before the flu is officially “widespread” in just about all parts of the country.  At which point one might wonder if it makes sense to get vaccinated at all.

Here’s something to think about: what if this disease were more deadly? Or, what if it just left lasting effects that didn’t kill quickly but just made your life miserable as long as you lived?  Would we all still be sitting on our couches, still changing the channels to see what else is on TV?  Could it be that this flu pandemic teaching us something that we aren’t learning? You bet it is.  The thing is this, however, the lesson has already been taught to us before – on more than one occasion – but it is one we don’t want to learn.  That’s because it’s about money.

It was almost 100 years ago that the Titanic set sail from its last stop at Cobh harbor in Ireland on its way to New York.   It already had a reputation as being unsinkable, even though this was its maiden voyage, due to its construction, which included a number of water-tight compartments.  Tragically, it turned out that the watertight compartments could not prevent it from sinking.  Even more tragic was the fact that there were not enough lifeboats on the ship.  Perhaps less well known is the fact that a sufficient number of lifeboats had actually been provided for the Titanic, but the ships management company, White Star Line, decided to offload almost half of the lifeboats because they felt the decks of Titanic were too cluttered.  And besides, the existing regulations didn’t require all those lifeboats anyway.  The result, of course, was the most famous maritime disaster of all time.  The lesson was that all ships in the future had to have sufficient lifeboat capacity no matter what anyone says.

There is, however, a further lesson we can learn from both the Titanic and the swine flu – but it is one we are unlikely to learn until it is too late.  The lesson is this: when we entrust our safety to profit-making corporations we have given the option to these corporations of choosing between profits and safety – and they will always choose profits.  The simple fact is that safety doesn’t make money and therefore only an entity that has the safety of the people in mind, and not profit, will make the correct decisions concerning public safety.  That entity is, and can only be, the government.

The simple fact is this: we don’t have enough swine flu vaccine.  We will not have enough swine flu vaccine in time to help prevent that vast majority of cases.  More people will get swine flu that will be protected from it by a vaccine.  The reason for this is simple: we don’t have the capability to make enough a vaccine fast enough.   Of course, when I say “we”, I mean the vaccine industry because there is no government vaccine production capability.  So why is this? Why isn’t there enough commercial vaccine capability to produce a vaccine for everyone in time? It’s because it doesn’t make sense from a profit-making perspective.  How often would these companies use this prodigious capability?  No too often. How would it pay for itself? It wouldn’t.  It would sit idle most of the time.  The Capitalist equation works for the business owner, not the general population.  It is the government (i.e. the people) that has to intervene when the for-profit system fails to provide for the safety of the people.  After the Titanic disaster strict lifeboat regulations were passed – by governments, not by the ocean liner industry.

We are in the process of learning a lesson similar to the Titanic lesson again.  However, it is one I believe we won’t learn well.  That’s because the swine flu is not deadly enough. A lot of us will get sick and a lot of us will die – but not enough, not enough to galvanize the public into demanding action. The result will be that our government won’t create a capability that could immunize all of us at some future time when we are confronted by a truly deadly killer. And then of course, it will be too late.

One can only wonder at a government that designs and builds enough nuclear weapons to kill every man, woman, and child on the planet many times over, all in the name of defense.  Yet, when it comes to defending its own people from disease, our government turns a blind eye to the possibility and its own responsibility, and leaves our lives at the tender mercies of the for-profit medical industry.

Capitalism at its best.

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On June 11, 2009 the World Health Organization declared that the A (H1N1) Swine Flu had become a pandemic.  There is now no question that the disease will spread throughout the world.  It is expected that this influenza virus will revisit the U.S. in the fall, as most influenzas do, and the number of cases will be far higher than what was experienced earlier this year.  There are now a couple of questions that come to mind. 1) Is our government taking any steps to protect the population from the spread of this disease? 2) What will our government do if the virus mutates (as they often do) into a form that is resistant to any vaccines that might have been prepared in advance?

In 1918-1919 a very deadly pandemic influenza spread throughout the world, killing between 30,000,000 and 50,000,000 people worldwide.  More people died from that flu than died in World War I.  An estimated 675,000 Americans died from the flu during that pandemic.  At the time there was nothing that could be done to prevent the spread of the disease. Flu vaccines were unknown.  The coming pandemic may well spread as far and wide as the 1918-1919 pandemic, maybe more since we have a much more densely populated world now.  Right now, the current pandemic flu virus is not as deadly as the 1918 one. But does that mean we are safe?  What if it mutates? What is our government doing about the situation?

According to John O. Brennan, the President’s advisor on Homeland Security, the government is planning to have a flu vaccine available for voluntary vaccinations by mid-October. Which is a little late. The flu season usually starts before then.  He doesn’t say how many doses are being created, nor does he say how much they will cost – but they will be voluntary – if you can get one. Let’s take a moment and compare our American response to the problem with that of a country that has a national health insurance program. Hmmm…I winder what Ireland is doing about the flu? On July 4th the government of Ireland announced that they will provide free flu vaccinations to the entire population of the country this autumn. Aren’t you glad we don’t suffer from a national health program like those poor Europeans?

Oh, there is this one other detail – you know, the one about the virus mutating.  What do we do if the virus mutates into a really deadly virus?  That’s what happened in 1918.  If the mutation is major then the vaccines we are making in the U.S. will probably have no effect – and we also won’t be able to make enough of a new version of the vaccine in time.  That’s because we grow our vaccines in eggs, and that just takes a lot of time and lots of eggs too.  After all, our drug companies can’t make the vaccine in batches of a million eggs at a time.  So, to put it succinctly, we’ll just be out of luck.

On the other hand, there is another way to make a vaccine – synthetically.  Synthetic vaccines using techniques that already exist could build up our supply 100 times or more faster than using eggs. But our government is not pushing this technique. After all – we don’t have a national health system, do we?  It’s up to our private, profit-making, drug companies to develop such a vaccine and, of course, the real issue is this: does it make economic sense? Can they recoup their investment dollars? Who’s going to pay for all the development costs? So, while some companies say they already can make such a vaccine synthetically, as a country, we really don’t have much capability at the moment.  And of course, if the flu suddenly mutates, it’ll be a little late to create the capability won’t it?

So, what is the answer to my question? Can our government save us from the pandemic that the World Health Organization says is certain to come? Sure, if the virus doesn’t mutate and still only produces very mild cases of flu. But do we really need saving from that? And what if the virus turns deadly. That’s when we really will need our government to save us.  So far, however, it doesn’t look good. Right now the profit picture, probabilities of mutation, investment risk, and so forth is sort of keeping our major drug manufacturers on the bench  with regard to the synthetic vaccine thing.  Remember, the key issue here is profit.  Aren’t you glad we don’t have a government health program?

By the way, if you like reading medical thrillers (and you like my blog), you might also like my novel about a pandemic. It’s called The Viral Epiphany and its available on Amazon.  You’ll need a Kindle reader though, because it’s only available for digital downloads for now. You can take a look at it and order it here.

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