What do Bill Maher, Louis Farrakhan and Glenn Beck have in common? Usually not much, but this flu season, they have all been irresponsible voices who could potentially constitute a greater public health threat than the H1N1 virus.
As we enter what could be a difficult flu season — President Barack Obama just declared a national emergency — we face a number of challenges to our public health infrastructure. Some of these challenges are typical and expected, such as the difficulties of distributing materials across a huge country with more than 300 million people in it or the complexities of producing in a short time frame a new vaccine that is safe and effective.
Others, however, are surprises, such as public skepticism from commentators like Maher regarding both public-safety measures like vaccines to prevent the spread of the illness and messages from public health officials. How elected leaders — and public commentators themselves — respond will determine our ability to be successful in facing the challenges of both seasonal and H1N1 influenza, as well as other potential biological events in the future.
Successfully dealing with any kind of bio event requires three steps: preparation, education and execution. The federal government is good at the first two steps, but recent evidence has shown that the third area may be lacking.
On the preparation side of things, the federal government has thus far been effective at drawing up plans, compiling stockpiles of needed vaccines and antiviral and conducting exercises with key government officials so that they are ready for any eventuality.
The federal government has made a lot of progress in education, as well — spreading the message on new technologies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to reach young people, who typically are less likely to take precautions in the face of potential outbreaks. Only about 24 percent of Americans ages 18 to 49 get the seasonal flu vaccine, compared with 36 percent of all adults and almost 70 percent of those 65 and older.
The third stage is execution, and this is the area where partisan sentiments can get in the way of effective event management. The event you plan for is rarely the event that takes place, and this disconnect is what separates theoretical cooperation in a government playbook with actual execution by individuals in the state, local and private-sector arenas. One thing that has made the execution part harder this season is the many loud voices, on both the left and the right, who are telling their listeners not to get vaccines because they distrust the government.
The worst offender in this has been Maher, who has called people who get flu shots "idiots" and has spread misinformation such as the idea that getting a vaccine is putting a live virus into your arm. In fact, the flu shot is a killed virus. In contrast, the nasal mist is a (weakened) live virus. But Maher is part of a larger phenomenon, in which people take political differences with elected leaders and apply them to anything the government says. Farrakhan, for his part, has been saying that the flu vaccine was designed to kill people, and that wise people won't take it. And some conservatives are even telling their listeners to discount the recommendations from public health experts. As Glenn Beck put it, "If somebody had the swine flu right now, I would have them cough on me. I'd do the exact opposite of what Homeland Security says."
Politicians cannot control political commentators — nor should they. But on this issue, elected officials of the left and the right need to band together, reach out to thought leaders outside government and recognize that their supporters are skeptical of the opposing party, just as the opposing party faithful is skeptical of them. This skepticism has consequences for national readiness.
This means political leaders of all stripes must be humble. For instance, some Americans are skeptical of Obama's swine flu messaging, just as many liberal activists were of President George W. Bush. One remedy, perhaps, is for Obama to stand up with Republican leaders like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky or House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio. McConnell, in fact, made an offer along these lines on ABC on Sunday, saying, "If they need anything additionally from Congress, I know we'll be happy to provide it, on a totally bipartisan basis." We need leaders to continue to issue a bipartisan message of cooperation at the national level — as McConnell just did — and at the individual level, as well, informing people about what they can do to limit the spread of infection.
As we look to the future, it is time to declare potential bio events a "neutral zone" — a place beyond politics that should be entered by both parties together.
This approach would be far more likely to grab Americans' attention, as the public knows all too well that on most issues, our politicians are constantly at war. But on public health issues essential to the safety of the American people, we need elected leaders who understand the skepticism of citizens and reach out in a bipartisan way with an intelligent, informative, respectful message that helps turn hard government work on preparation and education into successful execution.