The Politics of Influenza
Now that it looks like the H1N1 (Swine) flu is starting to wane and may not be the global disaster it could have been, I can't help but reflect on how political a public health emergency can be. Here is what I observed over the past week of flu-mania:
Kathleen Sebelius was sworn in as U.S. Health Secretary on Tuesday just hours after the Senate finally confirmed her nomination. The week before, the Republicans opposed her because of her support for abortion rights. It looked like it would be a long, ugly partisan fight with investigations into campaign contributions from a doctor who performs abortions but-BINGO- a flu epidemic with no Health Secretary didn't look too good. Now we have another cabinet member.
The anti-immigration folks also had a field day. Right wing talk radio pegged immigrants from the South as "infected parasites, rushing the border to escape death and receive free flu care in the United States." Nationally syndicated radio host Michael Savage led the pack last Friday, saying: “Make no mistake about it: Illegal aliens are the carriers of the new strain of human-swine avian flu from Mexico." And, Of course, Homeland Security Janet Napolitano would do nothing to protect our borders from these infected terrorists. The Swine flu became a perfect platform for immigration haters.
Another event that had nothing to do with science and everything to do with ideology was the Egyptian government slaughter of 30,000 pigs as a precaution against the swine flu. The World Health Organization said there was no evidence that pigs were transmitting the virus and there were no cases of flu in Egypt. Despite that, the pigs were killed. Pig-farming and pork consumption is limited to Egypt's Christian minority, which is about 10 percent of the population.
It is too bad that in the real world, public health is never just about human welfare. While science should be driving the discussion, politics and ideology are never far behind.