The bizarre alliance of the far left and far right against swine flu vaccinations.
Swine flu may have an unexpected side effect: political unity. The far left and far right agree that they're sure as heck not getting vaccinated against swine flu.
On the anti-government right, swine flu vaccinations are seen as an example of government overreach. Last week, Rush Limbaugh made headlines by announcing that he would not be getting a shot. "Screw you, Ms. Sebelius," he said on his radio show, referring to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. "I'm not going to take it precisely because you're now telling me I must." Glenn Beck has declined to say whether he's getting vaccinated. But he's made his position pretty clear, suggesting that the vaccine may turn out to be "deadly," raising the specter of mandatory vaccines (they're voluntary), and saying he wants the "U.S. out of my bloodstream."
On the left, there are prominent doctors, lawyers, and Hollywood celebrities skeptical of vaccines in general—and the swine flu vaccine especially. In a September article written for the Huffington Post, Dr. Frank Lipman recommended against getting vaccinated, arguing that the virus seems benign and the vaccine is unproven. Earlier this year, Jim Carrey—yes, that Jim Carrey—penned a HuffPost column reiterating the oft-made (and widely discredited) point that vaccines may cause autism. Robert F. Kennedy made a similar argument in a famous (and also largely discredited) 2005 article that appeared in Rolling Stone and Salon. The anti-vaccination movement is hardly exclusive to the left wing, but declines in vaccination rates have occurred in large part because of affluent parents in states like California.
Now, thanks to the government's plan to ship 250 million doses of H1N1 flu vaccine to all 50 states this month, the two sides have finally found common cause. They may hold different political opinions, but they share a worldview: distrust—of doctors and modern medicine or of government. There's even some overlap. Beck, for example, said that "you don't know if this is gonna cause neurological damage like it did in the 1970s"—a fear commonly cited by vaccine skeptics. (Claims that the 1976 flu vaccine caused Guillain-Barré syndrome have not been proven.) Meanwhile, those who fear the needle aren't all that confident in their government, either: Dr. Lipman warns that HHS has given the drug companies manufacturing the vaccines immunity from lawsuits.
HHS created a "Myths vs. Facts" page last week to address both types of qualms. First among them is the concern that swine flu shots are mandatory. "The federal government's vaccination program for H1N1 flu is VOLUNTARY," the site explains, dismissing an online petition that states otherwise as "simply false." Lower down, HHS addresses concerns that the vaccine can cause unrelated illnesses like heart attacks, miscarriages, or Guillain-Barré syndrome: "These events are no more common among people who have received seasonal flu vaccine than in people who have not."
Some of the myths circulating are neither left crazy nor right crazy, but simply crazy. Several Web sites have suggested that H1N1 is a vehicle for the government to implant microchips in our bodies to detect "bio-threats." At least one site posits that the vaccine contains a "Bible Code" connecting swine flu to prophesies in the Book of Revelation. HHS has yet to debunk this one. (See other common swine flu myths here.)
Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.
Photograph of Rush Limbaugh by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images.