Just about everything that can be put into the human body has an expiration date. Food eventually spoils and goes bad; ingredients in drugs lose their effectiveness over time. When the expiry date is up, you (should) throw the stuff out and replace it with fresher stuff.
And so it is with vaccines. A few days ago 40 million doses of the H1N1 / swine flu vaccine went bad; that’s over $250 million worth of drugs too stale to use, the largest amount of a single vaccine ever produced.
And there’s more to come, since another 30 million doses will be expiring soon. If 70 million doses end up being destroyed, that would account for nearly half of the American stockpile of H1N1 vaccine.
Despite grave warnings by public health officials last April, the swine flu epidemic never materialized, and in fact killed fewer people than the annual seasonal flu varieties — about 12,000.
In an interview with London’s The Independent newspaper, a World Health Organization advisor, Prof. Ulrich Keil, complained that by calling the early H1N1 outbreak a “pandemic,” countries around the world wasted precious public health money: “We know the great killers are hypertension, smoking, high cholesterol, high body mass index, physical inactivity and low fruit and vegetable intake….instead wasted huge amounts of money by investing in pandemic scenarios whose evidence base is weak.”
The report continued, “The suspicion that the response to the outbreak was an unnecessary panic has been spreading since the virus slipped from the front pages. Even the WHO, the U.N. body that first punched the big red button, may be having doubts. An external committee has been set up to review its reaction and will deliver an interim report this week, though at the moment no bombshells are expected.”
Governments and public health officials are, of course, in a no-win situation and will be second-guessed no matter what they do.
If they don’t issue a dire warning and millions die, they will be blamed for failing to act, and if they do issue a warning and the outbreak is not as bad as predicted, they will be blamed for overreacting.
Medicine is not an exact science and until better prediction methods are developed, public funds will continue to be wasted in a “better safe than sorry” approach to infectious disease.