This is the puzzling question that health experts are wrestling with today. Scientists must decide soon whether to order swine flu [Note that the WHO assigned a new name to the virus, influenza A(H1N1) as there is no clear swine involvement.] vaccines based on what the situation will be months from now. In other words, if they could see into the future, then they could make the right call now. However, if they delay their decision in an effort to learn more about the virus’s course and behavior, then it may be too late to produce vaccines. How many of us would want their jobs? Should they authorize production now, costing tens of millions of dollars for a vaccine that may not be necessary or even effective?
What if the virus mutates months from now and becomes ‘immune’ to the vaccine we start producing now? What if we wait instead for more data over the next few months and then are faced with an angry pandemic and no vaccine? This is a high risk and high stakes game.
Imagine you are shooting an arrow at a target that is beyond your view. What are your odds of striking a bull’s eye, especially if the target might move while your arrow is in flight?
Consider some swine flu vaccine facts that are torturing health experts and epidemiologists.
- Scientists do not know what the swine flu situation will be months from now. While a pandemic is possible, the outbreaks may recede to a much lower threat level
- It may take as long as 4 months to manufacture a vaccine, although pharmaceutical companies may be able to reduce this to 3 months using new technology. Nevertheless, there is a substantial lag time until the vaccine will be available to the public.
- Viruses may mutate rapidly and repeatedly. A new swine flu strain may emerge months from now that is not susceptible to the vaccine. Then what? What if the drug company is already 3 months into the original vaccine production process? Do they start over?
- Vaccine companies can only manufacture 1 flu vaccine at a time. They cannot modify a vaccine in progress to address a new swine flu strain that develops.
- Vaccine companies are not equipped to manufacture both the seasonal (ordinary) flu vaccine and a pandemic swine flu vaccine? Should they pursue the swine flu vaccine even though 36,000 Americans die every year from the seasonal flu?
We need to keep in mind that swine flu at present is not a lethal illness. In America, there has been only 1 fatality in an infant who had accompanying health issues. So, it does not appear that we are faced with another Black Plague.
International travelers worried about swine flu face potentially more serious infections during their travel abroad. There are many established effective vaccines available to protect them. Here’s a link for more information on routine, required and recommended travel vaccines
Health experts who must make the vaccine decision are not only firing at a moving target, they are also wearing blindfolds. If we find in the future that they have made wrong choice, let’s remember the very tough hand they were dealt. Can they pull an inside straight?