Public Remains Wary Of H1N1 Vaccine
Fewer than half of Americans say that they are planning to receive
the new H1N1 swine flu vaccine, according to recent polls.
"I'm genuinely baffled," says Arthur Kellermann, an
emergency medicine physician at the Emory University School of
Medicine who has treated swine flu cases.
The public's skepticism over the vaccine has persisted despite
health experts' warning that the H1N1 virus has reached pandemic
proportions according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Public health officials and the medical community are scrambling
to figure out how to convince more Americans to get vaccinated
when supplies of the vaccine become more widely available, but
it won't be easy.
Creating Awareness, Avoiding Panic
For one thing, there are many different reasons why people say
they are unlikely to get vaccinated. Nearly a third are worried
about side effects, according to a Harvard School of Public Health
survey in September. Twenty-eight percent said they don't believe
they are at risk for a serious case of the flu, while another
quarter say they can get medication to treat the flu if they do
"They really can lose public credibility for decades if
what they do is threaten that thousands are going to die and be
hospitalized, and it doesn't occur," says Robert Blendon,
a professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard
University School of Health. "They feel confident there's
going to an outbreak, but they don't know how many severe cases
there will be."
The swine flu vaccine is now being distributed in some places
and is being targeted to those considered at high risk, including
health care workers. Pregnant women and children are likely to
be next. But the CDC says some deliveries of vaccine will be delayed
because production is lower than expected. And officials do not
want to create a panic.
"There's too much at risk to try to use scare tactics to
try to get people to vaccinate," says Kristine Sheedy, the
communications director for the CDC's National Center for Immunization
and Respiratory Diseases. "While we don't want to scare people
into getting vaccinated, we also want to make the disease real."
It is still very early in the fall flu season. As skeptics see
more and more people getting vaccinated, experts expect others
to change their minds. Reports of swine flu deaths, particularly
in people's own communities and schools, could end up being the
most powerful motivator.
But this year, officials are also fighting some high-profile
counterweights to their message. First, an unusual set of high-profile
personalities including conservative media commentators
like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and more liberal ones like
Bill Maher is publicly opposing the vaccination effort.
Their opposition appears to be part of the larger anti-government
movement that has been vocal during the debate over the Obama
administration's efforts to overhaul the nation's health care
system. Beck told his viewers on Fox News that he would do "the
exact opposite" of whatever the government recommends. Maher
echoed that on his HBO talk show, saying, "I don't trust
the government, especially with my health."
It's not yet clear how persuasive their opinions will be. "There's
no question that the anti-government feeling and fears are playing
a role," says Blendon. "We just don't know the magnitude
of the impact."
Public opinion surveys show that doctors and nurses are seen
as the most credible sources of information on these kinds of
medical decisions, but there has also been a flurry of media reports
about some health professionals resisting mandatory vaccination
campaigns at certain hospitals.
But the CDC's Sheedy says that doctors and nurses have always
been tough sells when it comes to the flu. Vaccination rates for
the seasonal flu have never topped 50 percent for health professionals
and usually hover barely above 40 percent.
"We hear the same misperceptions among some providers as
we do among the general public," she says. "It is quite
a challenge for us to ask the public to go out and take this step
and get vaccinated to protect themselves, when we have so many
health care workers out there who aren't doing the same."