If nothing else, public health authorities have hit on the perfect formula to motivate Americans to get their flu shots: Declare a public health emergency, urge everyone to get vaccinated...and then fail to provide enough vaccine. Just as demand spikes, there are no vaccinations to be had.
Swine flu is going around Madison. But good luck getting a shot to prevent it. Flu shot clinics in our area have been canceled, and there's no telling whether Madisonians can get vaccinated anytime soon, even as the flu season heads toward its peak.
After promising last spring to have 120 million doses of H1N1 vaccine ready by the fall, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius had to scale back that promise to 45 million. So far, only 11 million doses have materialized.
The vaccine makers' predictions to the government proved "overly rosy," Sebelius explained this week. They didn't realize how slow the process of making the vaccine would be.
My family resolved to get flu shots this year. Swine flu was not yet available, but at least, we thought, we could get our regular, seasonal flu shots.
Not so fast. A whole lot of other people had the same idea. Thanks to increased demand and constricted supply (in part because vaccine makers switched from making regular flu shots to H1N1), we found ourselves chasing around Madison with other frantic vaccine seekers.
Initially, we planned to get vaccinated at our family practice clinic. But the clinic ran out of vaccine and wasn't sure when more might come in. The receptionist told me to keep calling back each day. "I know," she said, "it's ridiculous."
Home Health United scheduled shots for employees and their families at the state Public Defender's Office, where my husband works. I loaded the kids in the car for a drive downtown. Whoops. The shots were canceled - not enough vaccine.
On a tip from the clinic receptionist, my husband and I managed to get our seasonal flu shots by paying $29 each at the Medicine Shoppe pharmacy in Monona. We tag-teamed it at rush hour on a weeknight. But, let's face it, the kids are the primary germ vectors in the family, and the pharmacy didn't have vaccine for children.
The truth is, we are normally a bit lackadaisical about vaccination. This fall, our school nurse sent us a note, an email, and finally followed up with a phone call to say our kindergartener would not be allowed in school unless she caught up on her last four required immunizations.
I sympathize with parents who take a dim view of the immunization schedule from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
With so many shots scheduled for young children, you have to choose between falling behind or turning your baby into a human pincushion. As a parent, it seems like too much, especially when the disease in question is not an imminent threat.
But when a parent in my neighborhood asked about the H1N1 vaccine, I found myself on the other side: turbo-vaccinator. It's not that I don't see the point of forgoing flu shots. Actually catching the flu, even H1N1, as several of our neighbors have done, is better protection against future illness than a one-time shot.
There is a similar issue with the chicken pox vaccine: Why not see if the kids can catch the chicken pox while they are still young, so they develop a more reliable immunity? I'll tell you why: the prospect of three very sick kids and the memory of last winter.
This year, I'm eager to avoid the stress of our whole family getting really sick. So I'm off, chasing down the elusive shots.
I'm persuaded that H1N1 and seasonal flu shots are safe. The process for producing both types of vaccine is the same, and the effectiveness is high.
Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are trying to stir up outrage that, in Rush's words, "You must take the pig flu vaccine." "Screw you, Miss Sebelius," he howled on his radio show. "I'm not going to take it precisely because you're now telling me I must take it."
That's a bunch of nonsense. The government is not making anyone get vaccinated. And in fact, a more centrally planned approach would make more sense than the chaotic patchwork of free-market flu vaccination.
When the seasonal flu vaccine became available, I rushed the kids in. "I'd hurry," the nurse advised me. "We'll probably be all out within a day or so."
I signed the kids up for swine flu vaccine at school. Then I got a note: Madison is officially all out of H1N1 vaccine until further notice.
The chase goes on.
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.