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MN2020 Journal: The Flu Doesn't Care About Your Politics

October 30, 2009 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow
I've been mulling a paradox. Can conservative, anti-government policy advocates accept publicly sourced flu shots?

At present and for the foreseeable future, flu vaccine demand outstrips supply. This, in itself, is a remarkable development. While flu vaccination rates have climbed over the past decade, more people still choose to skip the flu shot rather than receive it.

This year, that may possibly change provided, of course, that we can find a shot.

Government plays an absolutely critical role in public health preservation. It coordinates a vast public-private partnership that largely operates out of sight. The Center for Disease Control constantly monitors global contagions, cooperating with other nations' public health ministries and the World Health Organization. With fast, cheap and convenient global travel, that next flu strain is only an infected traveler and a 12 hour flight away.

The CDC determines the probability that a particular flu virus strain will emerge as a dominant threat. They do this by monitoring Asia, the source point for many diseases. After selecting the most likely flu strain, the CDC begins developing a vaccine that inoculates the most people. Because biological systems are evolutionarily nimble, not every vaccine works on every patient. Some people will still get sick despite scientists' best efforts.

In flu combat, private industry's role is vaccination production and distribution. Vaccines must be grown. Large-scale growth takes time. We count on industry's capacity to execute their mission quickly and efficiently.  And, yes, they profit from their work.

Let's stop to contemplate economies of scale in flu vaccine production. If more people regularly seek and receive a flu vaccine, industry's costs drop as production volume increases. Producing more vaccine lowers unit costs. Since a vaccine is more like insurance than, say, a candy bar, people purchase it for reasons beyond a strict mercantilist model.

Vaccine price is one purchase behavior element. Other individual costs include the time and resources necessary to find and receive a shot. These are offset by the benefits of being flu-free. However, large-scale flu freedom can't be achieved individually. Consequently, we've created government systems to achieve this goal.

In other words, Minnesota can't have a public health system without government. Our collective self-interest in disease containment and mitigation is expressed through public health and public safety systems. We trust the CDC to choose the most probable flu strain precisely because they don't have a profit motive.

The H1N1 flu strain is commanding unprecedented attention. Vaccination awareness is skyrocketing, presenting a public health services with an entirely new challenge. Where they once cajoled people into flu shots, today they're scrambling to accelerate vaccine production and distribution.

Minnesota's public unequivocally demands a flu vaccine, both this year's regular strain and the H1N1 novel version. Ideology doesn't enter the picture. People want to protect their families and themselves.

Which, returns me to my original question: how do conservatives reconcile bludgeoning government while still lining up for government benefits?

I think that conservatives have lost touch with Minnesota's values. Shrill condemnation may sound good over beers but flu threat-rattled parents aren't remotely receptive to conservatives stock "starve the beast" anti-government declarations. Seeking and receiving a flu shot isn't a political act. It's a clear expression of appropriately intertwined individual and community self-interest.

The Swine Flu isn't a political opportunity. It's a manageable public health challenge requiring our best efforts. Despite my opposition to conservative public policies, I'm still thankful that ideology isn't a vaccination screening question.

Minnesotans know how to focus on what really matters. Staying healthy is important; government bashing isn't.

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