A truly Big Brother would line everybody up, make them roll up their sleeves, and vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate against the flu. A simple, if draconian, solution to a draconian virus.
Americans, though, are historically myopic: nobody remembers much about the past. Try asking a teenager to identify the Axis nations, Pol Pot or Jim Crow. Perhaps that myopia explains a Pollyannaish optimism that helps us ignore glum disease projections.
In reality, the influenza pandemic of 1918 infected more than one-quarter of the population of the United States. Worldwide, it killed as many as 5 percent of the population. But we don’t feel the frisson we should at the word “flu.” Even the outbreak of 2009 was severe enough to earn the term “pandemic,” yet few Americans recall it.
So each winter public-health departments rise up to urge vaccinations against this contagious disease. Although the vaccine does not give 100 percent protection (though why we expect anything to offer 100 percent protection is strange), it is the best recourse. Hand-washing of course is a safeguard against contagious diseases in general; but experts caution that protection against this bug demands more than soap and water.
The logistics of vaccination are simple. The process takes a few minutes. There are a few varieties, including nasal sprays, concoctions for people who are allergic to eggs, higher doses for people over age 65. Insurers will pay; for patients without insurance, the state will generally pay. You don’t need an appointment with a physician: pharmacies, health clubs, schools all can morph into drop-in flu clinics.
Yet a lot of Americans pass on the shot. Too busy. Too tired. Too sick. Leery of modern medicine. Maybe cynical of government: if the state wants you to do this, you shouldn’t.
The beauty of a democracy is that we don’t force people to roll up their sleeves. Yet hospitals, which care for patients who are by definition sick, fear that while their patients may finish their surgeries, their treatments, their regimens according to plan, those patients may end up with the flu – an iatrogenic illness. The patient will have gotten sick during treatment. But the staff, not the treatment, will be to blame. A doctor, a nurse, an orderly with the flu can transmit the virus. That unvaccinated Clara Barton, exuding compassion, may be a grim reaper.