As health care workers in the U.S. gear up for the flu season, they facea paradox: on the one hand, they will have too little vaccine against the novel influenza A (H1N1) strain to protect the entire population; on the other, some people will resist the shots that are offered to them. Sadly, both problems can be traced, at least in part, to the last time “swine flu” loomed. The 1976 national vaccination campaign against a pandemic that never materialized left the public with lingering doubts about whether the inoculations harmed some recipients and spawned lawsuits that cost the federal government nearly $100 million.
Since that episode, both public mistrust of vaccines and vaccine makers’ mistrust of a litigious public have only grown—hampering the nation’s ability to respond to the current, very real, pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expect the virus to sicken up to a third of the population this fall. But the nation will have barely enough vaccine for a third of its residents because methods used to make U.S. flu vaccines have changed little in half a century. Health officials decided early in the summer to stick with slow, egg-based production techniques and to eschew dose-sparing additives that might have tripled the vaccine supply.