As H1N1 vaccines become available this month, the attention — or lack thereof — to flu prevention has again become relevant. The spectrum of reactions to the flu ranges from people wearing masks on the way to class to students joking about the swine flu at the sound of a single cough. People have varying opinions on the dangers of H1N1 — some say it’s all media hype, while others take extra precautions in order to avoid contracting the bug. It’s important to take a well-grounded approach to swine flu, since neither extreme response is suitable.
The University and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are taking major initiatives to combat swine flu’s proliferation. The University has implemented an effective policy, but the CDC may have to be more careful about the amount of information it dispenses. The effort to combat the virus before it actually becomes a major public health risk makes sense, but it’s important to toe the line between creating awareness and inducing panic.
The CDC is combating H1N1 nationally. Its website includes public health warnings and suggestions, among other information. But even given that this virus is more contagious than the regular flu and its full effect is unknown, there may be too much information. For example, a person visiting the CDC website will find it full of swine flu death statistics and pages and pages describing how to protect oneself from the virus (even though the precautions are not much different than any other airborne illness), which could provoke unnecessary paranoia. The right balance of information and action is important.
Though the University and CDC serve different roles, the University has done an excellent job of running a campaign that provides the right amount of awareness about the virus on campus. We have all seen the precautionary posters and hand sanitizer dispensers. These are by no means excessive and drastic measures, but rather serve the purpose of encouraging healthy behavior among students — especially since areas like the residence halls are a paradise for the virus.
Another element of the swine flu controversy has to do with vaccination. This topic is hotly debated, and rightfully so, because it exposes the conflict between public and personal health. One of the questions that arose has to do with whether the vaccine should be mandated in high-risk situations. The arguments in favor of a mandate are strong — mass vaccination would be likely to lower the spread of the virus, which would both improve public health and protect those who are not vaccinated through what is called herd immunity. In the event that the outbreak becomes worse, especially in an area such as a college campus, a large amount of immunized people on campus wouldn’t be a bad thing.
But there are concerns about mandating vaccinations. First and foremost, the legality of a mandate would surely be challenged as a civil rights issue — as it has been in New York, which mandated vaccination among all health care workers in the state. Reasons given for avoiding the vaccine include a 1976 precedent in which people who were vaccinated for swine flu displayed an unusually high rate of Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a disorder of the nervous system that leads to paralysis. But this isn’t believed to be linked to the current vaccine. The issue of personal choice also arises: Who can tell you what to put in your body?
A smart vaccination strategy would be a moderate one. Instead of a mandate, a strong recommendation to get vaccinated would not only be a less abrasive policy but also a more effective one. And the CDC has done this right by recommending that individuals in high-risk groups get vaccinated. People would feel less contemptuous and may be even more likely to comply. Additionally, a vaccine isn’t absolutely required since the majority of H1N1 cases are not fatal. The University is also handling the vaccine situation well by giving free swine flu vaccinations to all students under the age of 24.
By no means should swine flu be ignored — it is more deadly than the average flu and has resulted in a greater number of fatalities in children. But a moderate approach, which includes giving the public the appropriate amount of information so as not to spur an inefficient and unnecessary overreaction, is important. The University has done an excellent job creating awareness of H1N1 and providing vaccinations in a high-risk campus environment. A moderate policy like the one it has adopted is the way to go.
Harsha Panduranga can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.