Monday, September 14, 2009

Flu Season and the CDC-Media Partnership:

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September 4th, 2009Dr. Sherri Tenpenny

By Dr Sherri Tenpenny

September 1, 2009

As predictable as the return of yellow school buses and fall foliage, the arrival of fall also brings the escalating chatter about the approaching flu season. This year, the risk of an impending pandemic adds to the usual push to get everyone vaccinated with both the annual flu shot and the new, experimental swine flu vaccine.

On August 7, President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a report (1) to update the President on the status of preparations for upcoming pandemic. The report reviewed “the full range of response options for minimizing negative impacts from a fall 2009-H1N1 epidemic.” The intention was to provide recommendations surrounding the hard issues and key policy decisions that need to be made to minimize illness and death from the flu.

On page 8 of the 55-page report, “plausible scenarios” are discussed:

1. Approximately 30–50% of the U.S. population will become infected this fall and winter with the novel H1N1 virus. The result will be illness among 20–40% of the population (60–120 million people), more than half of whom would seek medical attention.

2. Serious illness will lead to as many as 1.8 million U.S. hospital admissions during the epidemic, with up to 300,000 patients requiring care in intensive care units (ICUs). Importantly, these very ill patients could occupy 50–100 percent of all ICU beds at the peak of the epidemic, an enormous stress on intensive care units that normally operate close to capacity.

3. The virus could cause between 30,000 and 90,000 deaths in the United States, concentrated among chil dren and young adults.

The media typically reports that “normal” influenza takes the lives of 35,000 persons per year. What is the basis for suddenly tripling of possible number of deaths from the swine flu to 90,000? Two CDC spoke persons, Mr. Tom Skinner and Dr. Anne Schuchat the media that the President’s report presented a “worst-case scenario” to be used for “planning purposes only” and the higher estimate was based on “mathematical modeling projections.” However the major news outlets jumped on the opportunity to hype the fear of the upcoming H1N1 flu.

The media relations director for the CDC, Mr. Glen Nowak, took the explanation one step further. He said the more dramatic scenario message might be helpful in turning the public’s attention back to the H1N1 pandemic at a time when many experts predict a second wave of infections could begin as students return to school. His justification was that “Anything that helps break complacency is a useful tool.” (2)

It seems that Mr. Nowak has a penchant for sensationalism. He will be remembered as the author of a portentous presentation released in 2004 that was the blueprint to ensure the economic success of the annual flu season campaign. The strategy was devised when a 2003 report documented that almost 65 percent of people surveyed did not receive the flu shot – including nearly 47 percent with chronic illnesses and 78 percent of children aged 6- to 23-months. Mr. Nowak’s plan was fully disclosed in a 51 slide communiqué called, “Planning for the 2004-05 Influenza Vaccination Season: A Communication Situation Analysis.”

The most significant part of the program was, “The Seven-Step Recipe for Generating Interest in, and Demand for, Flu (or any other) Vaccination.” Here the intent of the government and their drug company business partners was disclosed: use major news media (newswires, TV) to send scheduled, fear-based messages in an attempt to convince the complacent public to not only view the flu shot necessary, but to motivate everyone to demand the shot.

Here is the synopsis of each step of Mr. Nowak’s recipe, followed in italics by a description of activity and my commentary: (3)

Step 1: Start discussing the flu at the beginning of the “immunization season.”

Posters, fliers and media campaign materials are generally mailed to public health departments and healthcare provider offices in mid-August, planting the seeds in the minds of patients so that they request the flu vaccine when it arrives.

Step 2: Make pronouncements through the media that the “new” influenza strains anticipated this year “will be associated with severe illness and serious outcomes.”

The government has been preparing for pandemics and conjuring up flu shots for mass vaccination since the outbreak of SARS in 2003. The report by the PCAST suggests that 90,000 could die this year from the swine flu; Perhaps that is isn’t so bad. In 2004, the government thought that we were going to have a bad flu season, and worried that as many as 207,000 Americans could die.(4)

Step 3: Beginning in the early fall, the build up will start begin with the media frequently interviewing local and national medical experts and public health authorities who will sound the alarm and predict dire outcomes–and urge influenza vaccination.

Step 4: Reports from medical experts will be used to “frame the flu season in terms [that will] motivate behavior.” Language to be used should include, “very severe,” “more severe than last or past years,” “deadly.”

During the SARS outbreak in 2003, the media flooded the airwaves with 1,026 messages between September 21-28. Phrases used included, “This could be the worst flu season ever”, “The flu kills 36,000 people per year” and “The flu shot is the best way to prevent the flu.”

This year, the CDC is formulating a $4.8 million multimedia campaign to encourage people to get vaccinated using radio and television public service announcements, print ads, and messages delivered through social media outlets including Twitter, RSS feeds, podcasts and UTube.

Even though over the last 7 years less than 1,300 persons –that is not a typo – actually die each year from influenza,(5) anticipate an acceleration of swine flu pandemic messages about the upcoming “deadly flu” throughout the fall.

The 5th and 6th steps of Nowak’s recipe recommend release of reports from important health officials to “help foster the perception” that many people are susceptible to a bad case of influenza. He suggests TV interviews with families willing to tell their story of serious influenza complications, especially heart wrenching pictures of ill children. Nowak recommends using pictures of people being vaccinated. This combination of stories and picture of vaccination will serve, “motivate and reinforce” the need for flu shots.

The final recommendation, Step 7 calls for references to, and discussions regarding, the upcoming influenza pandemic. And of course, Nowak reinforces his main point: “Make continued reference to the importance of vaccination.”

The government has poured billions of dollars into this year’s influenza pandemic preparedness and health officials are carefully planning a strategy, to push record numbers into the vaccination lines. Understanding the tactical maneuvers and partnerships between the CDC-Big Pharma-Media will strengthen the resolve to stay healthy by means other than vaccination.

[1] PCAST report.

[2] CIDRAP News.

[3] The complete 51 page document appears to no longer be available online but can be viewed in its entirety on

[4] “U.S. Unveils Flu Crisis Plan”, August 25, 2004.

[5] American Lung Association. “Trends in Pneumonia and Influenza Morbidity and Mortality.” September 2008.

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