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Ideology and Flu Vaccine

Thirty-six thousand Americans die of the flu every year. If that number rises by just a tenth because we have only half as much flu vaccine as we need, the increase in deaths will exceed the number killed by Osama bin Laden on Sept. 11, 2001.

The parallels to 9/11 do not stop there. As in the 2001 catastrophe, officials of the Bush administration are claiming ignorance as if it were a virtue. They say they had no idea the vaccine shortage would happen. They are pinning the blame on neglect by previous administrations.

And they are bragging about everything they are doing -- now -- to prevent this kind of thing in the future. But, as with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it didn’t take long for various filed-and-forgotten reports to resurface, all of them warning about the danger of a flu vaccine shortage.

Hindsight is cheap, of course. Washington is the world’s leading manufacturer of dire warnings. You can’t heed them all. But there were other hints as well. Lesser flu vaccine screw-ups have been common in recent years. Clearly, the system was broken.

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Regarding 9/11, President Bush’s apologists emphasize that it happened when he was still learning his way to the White House men’s room. But the flu vaccine shortage comes as he is running for reelection with heavy emphasis on claims of wisdom derived from experience.

The flu-shot problem could have happened under any president. But it was more likely to happen under this one because preventive measures conflict with his ideology. When frail elderly people are falling down dead as they plod from clinic to drugstore in search of vaccine, and a black market is growing to serve those who can pay hundreds of dollars for a single dose, it is not a good moment for bromides about the evils of letting big government allocate healthcare.

Then there is money. A scientist quoted in the New York Times on Sunday noted that the government was spending $283 million a year on flu research and $5.6 billion on research for a vaccine against anthrax, a purely theoretical threat.

The causes of the flu vaccine shortage may even include a couple that Bush would find compatible with his philosophy: lawsuits and excessive regulation. But he missed the opportunity to ride these hobbyhorses, and possibly to prevent a national disaster, because he was otherwise engaged.

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