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Vaccine Hogs

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Posted Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2004, at 3:27 PM PT - If you're a challenger in a House or Senate race this year, Charles Babington and David Brown of the Washington Post have a wonderful line of attack to try against the incumbent: "My opponent is a disease vector!"

Babington and Brown report the appalling news that, in the midst of a flu-vaccine shortage, Dr. John F. Eisold, the attending physician for Congress, has urged all 535 members of Congress to stop by his office for a vaccination, regardless of age or physical health. This sounds very much like the sort of pampering that puts "member of Congress" in the bottom half of most surveys ranking the respect afforded various professions, just a few notches above journalists.

A press spokesman for Dr. Eisold explained to the Post that what the rest of us consider a legislative body is in fact an oversized bicameral Petri dish teeming with deadly viruses and bacteria. Members of Congress "are at high risk," he explained, "because they shake hands with a lot of people." Sensing, perhaps, that this wouldn't cut much ice with people like, say, my wife (who is immunocompromised from cancer treatments yet still waiting for her flu vaccine) or my septuagenarian parents (who waited on line seven hours in two separate places to get their vaccine), Dr. Eisold's spokesmen shifted gears and explained that the real danger wasn't that members of Congress would get sick, but that their dancing pathogens would endanger the many people they came into contact with afterward. That would include a lot of elderly people, who tend to be more politically active than younger people, and also a lot of patients in Veterans Administration hospitals, who are ideal for patriotic photo-ops because they have no means of escape. (Dr. Eisold's spokesman didn't mention the upside: sidelining scores of corporate lobbyist/fundraisers.)

Majority leader Bill Frist, whose Senate Web site identifies him as "Bill Frist, M.D.," sent a Sept. 29 letter to his fellow senators urging them to get the flu shots for the same reasons Dr. Eisold's been urging them to. Frist, however, had the good sense to stop offering that medical advice earlier this month after Chiron Corp., a California-based drug manufacturer, was forced by British regulators to close down its vaccine production line in Liverpool, England due to contamination. (The Post fails to pinpoint the date of Frist's letter, thereby creating the unfair impression that Frist urged special treatment for senators after the shortage became evident. That isn't true, and warrants a correction.)

Are members of Congress disease vectors? Well, yes, in the sense that we all are. But I have no difficulty thinking of other groups who are much likelier to spread the flu to vulnerable populations: Prostitutes, prison inmates, day-care workers, authors on book tours, apple-bobbing aficionados and, oh yes, doctors. Dr. Eisold should give himself a flu shot. Then he should suture the gaping hole that separates his lips.

[Update, Oct. 21: I let Frist off the hook too hastily. The Associated Press reported yesterday that the Senate majority leader "allowed his office to be used as a makeshift clinic for dispensing shots to senators" as late as Oct. 7, which was two days after the shortage became known. Among those who may have shown up for post-shortage vaccinations was Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif. The AP story says Dreier, age 52, showed up for his vaccination "during the hectic final days before lawmakers left town until after the Nov. 2 election." The Senate recess started on Oct. 11, a full week after the shortage became known. What did Dreier know and when did he know it? "Obviously, I wouldn't have gotten it if I had known there would be such a shortage," Dreier told AP. But apparently he can't say for certain that he rolled up his sleeve before Oct. 5. How long did Frist keep hosting these vaccination parties, anyway?

I'm a Democrat, but I must call foul on John Kerry's whacking Vice President Dick Cheney and Treasury Secretary John Snow for getting vaccinated. Even if they got vaccinated after Oct. 5 (which isn't clear), they're 65 and 63, respectively, and Cheney has a famously bum ticker. In other words, they're both in the at-risk group to whom the rest of us are supposed to defer. Vaccination-baiting is a perfectly legitimate tactic, but the rules of fair play must be honored.

I assume Rush Limbaugh will call Teddy Kennedy, D-Mass., a hypocrite for getting vaccinated and then saying, on Oct. 8, "If members of Congress and their staffs cannot reserve flu vaccine for those most in need, how can we ask the American public to do so?" But this is not hypocritical, even if Kennedy was vaccinated after Oct. 5, because Kennedy is 72 and therefore himself at-risk, or "most in need." Kennedy may be rich, but the flu is one of the rare bad things in life that aging plutocrats can't buy their way out of.]

Timothy Noah writes "Chatterbox" for Slate.

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