Technology & Science

H1N1 fears worse than virus, expert says

In the year since the first human case of H1N1 influenza was diagnosed in Mexico, public health efforts worldwide focusing on a vaccination campaign have increasingly come under question.

In the year since the first human case of H1N1 influenza was diagnosed in Mexico, public health efforts worldwide focusing on a vaccination campaign have increasingly come under question.

As of March 7, at least 16, 713 deaths of people with laboratory-confirmed pandemic influenza H1N1 2009 have been reported to the World Health Organization, a number far lower than many had feared. Worldwide, many were never diagnosed or tested. 

"The H1N1 outbreak was fairly small," said Philip Alcabes, who holds a PhD in infectious-disease epidemiology from Johns Hopkins as well as masters degrees in biochemistry and public health and professorships at Yale University and City University of New York.

There was tremendous overreaction to the threat posed by H1N1, which Alcabes said "ended up kind of the goose that laid the golden egg for the vaccine manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies."

Alcabes insisted that swine flu fizzled before the vaccine was produced and consequently mass immunizations were not necessary. The campaigns only happened, he said, because pharmaceutical companies, politicians and the media stoked fear that H1N1 could parallel the very deadly 1918 flu pandemic.

H1N1 was serious, said Dr. Greg Poland of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

"I think it's the function of government to sound the alarm," said Poland, who insisted being prepared isn't about instilling fear. He likened the response to buying life insurance every year.

"At the end of that year, I didn't say, 'You know what? A waste of money, I didn't die,'" Poland said.

The H1N1 influenza infection was widespread. Had higher-risk people not been immunized, its likely more deaths would have occurred, Poland added.

Both experts agreed it's not clear that the vaccine did anything to stop H1N1 from spreading.