Anyone who wonders whether demagogues on the left and right do real damage to the audiences they mislead need look no farther than how the partisan media is “reporting” on the vaccine for the swine flu. I am sensitive to this topic because I have cable news watching grandparents who I’d like to see survive the winter. The chances that they’ll do so are marginally improved if they get the flu vaccine, or so the best scientific information available suggests, there being no guarantees in these matters.
Chris Beam rounds up coverage in the partisan media that is bound to reduce the number of folks who get the flu vaccine.
On the anti-government right, swine flu vaccinations are seen as an example of government overreach. Last week, Rush Limbaugh made headlines by announcing that he would not be getting a shot. “Screw you, Ms. Sebelius,” he said on his radio show, referring to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. “I’m not going to take it precisely because you’re now telling me I must.” Glenn Beck has declined to say whether he’s getting vaccinated. But he’s made his position pretty clear, suggesting that the vaccine may turn out to be “deadly,” raising the specter of mandatory vaccines (they’re voluntary), and saying he wants the “U.S. out of my bloodstream.”
On the left, there are prominent doctors, lawyers, and Hollywood celebrities skeptical of vaccines in general—and the swine flu vaccine especially. In a September article written for the Huffington Post, Dr. Frank Lipman recommended against getting vaccinated, arguing that the virus seems benign and the vaccine is unproven. Earlier this year, Jim Carrey—yes, that Jim Carrey—penned a HuffPost column reiterating the oft-made (and widely discredited) point that vaccines may cause autism. Robert F. Kennedy made a similar argument in a famous (and also largely discredited) 2005 article that appeared in Rolling Stone and Salon. The anti-vaccination movement is hardly exclusive to the left wing, but declines in vaccination rates have occurred in large part because of affluent parents in states like California.
Now, thanks to the government’s plan to ship 250 million doses of H1N1 flu vaccine to all 50 states this month, the two sides have finally found common cause. They may hold different political opinions, but they share a worldview: distrust—of doctors and modern medicine or of government. There’s even some overlap. Beck, for example, said that “you don’t know if this is gonna cause neurological damage like it did in the 1970s”—a fear commonly cited by vaccine skeptics. (Claims that the 1976 flu vaccine caused Guillain-Barré syndrome have not been proven.) Meanwhile, those who fear the needle aren’t all that confident in their government, either: Dr. Lipman warns that HHS has given the drug companies manufacturing the vaccines immunity from lawsuits.
So there you have it. Demagogues on the right and left whose irresponsible rhetoric is very likely to cost lives this flu season by scaring folks who’d otherwise get the flu vaccine into going without.