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We're worrying too much
by Betsy Hart
Scripps Howard News Service


December 27, 2004

There's one story that to me best epitomized the American psyche, or maybe I should say one of the worst aspects of the American psyche, in 2004.

jpg Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
photo by Evan Eile

It wasn't the election, the war in Iraq, or even the fascination with the Laci Peterson murder.

It was the flu vaccine shortage.

In years past, doctors have had a tough time convincing their patients to even bother with the vaccine. Oh sure if they are handing it out in grocery stores we might get one if we're not too busy, or if we are at the doctors office already, and he reminds us, we might do it. It's true that tens of millions of doses are given each year, with a predominate number of those going to the elderly. But how many healthy, non-elderly people make a special appointment with their doctors and go out of their way to get the shot?

It's just typically not a big deal to most people.

That is, until this year and the flu vaccine shortage, and suddenly the fact that we couldn't get one was practically a death sentence. The stories were legion of healthy, middle-aged people bribing their doctors for a shot. Scheming with business associates as to who had a friend who knew someone who went to medical school with a guy who is now in a practice which might have some of the precious medicine. People waiting for hours in line when they heard the shot might be available - people who never even thought before about getting the shot. Suddenly, announcing at a cocktail party that one had, somehow, in some way, gotten a flu shot, became a sign of incredible social prestige and position.

In fact, in previous years pubic service announcements have gone into overtime trying to get people to get the vaccine, because, in fact, 20,000 Americans die every year of the flu. (Mostly the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.) The very reason there was a push by public medical agencies to provide the shots outside of doctors offices - say in grocery stores - is because people didn't care enough to make a special trip to their physician to get it.

But boy, the minute it wasn't available, good ol' American angst went into overdrive and absolute panic ensued.

Americans were again desperately worried about something they couldn't change. Never mind that, if one is otherwise healthy and even relatively young, the flu will not typically cause serious complications other than some personal misery for a while. Still some of the very same people who smoke, or walk around with an extra 30 pounds, or never exercise, or drive without seatbelts, or otherwise daily put themselves at unnecessary risk of death or serious illness spent their waking hours conniving to grab the "magical" elixir.

We American love to focus on the things we have no control over - from a flu shot shortage to another terrorist attack, to mad-cow disease in our cheeseburgers, we panic. But we are loathe to change things in our own lives that really could make a difference. I mean, that's not fun, right? That involves personal sacrifice. Yuch.

And I'm not even talking just about health related issues.

We parents are nuts about the incredibly rare possibility of a stranger abducting our kids, for instance, while in all of America it happens less than 200 times a year. But if we really wanted to protect our little ones, finding a way for a parent to be at home with them and interact with them more, or telling them to turn off the TV or video games and go play outside instead, would be much more helpful to our children than just the simplistic "stranger danger" message. But, that's hard!

We complain endlessly about skyrocketing college costs - but how people buy new flat screen TVs for their families instead of putting even pennies aside in the incredibly advantageous savings program of what's called a "529 plan." The extent to which such college-savings vehicles are underutilized by Americans is staggering. Or maybe not. It involves sacrifice in our own comfy lives.

Easier to panic about a flu shot.

I love America, and I love the American spirit. But the response to the flu shot shortage was us at our worst. Once again we worried about something we couldn't fix, while too often not being willing to make even small sacrifices in our own lives to make better the things that we can. Often the things that matter most.

Oh well, I don't like this American tendency - but I guess I will just have to try to not panic about it.


Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by e-mail at letterstohart(at)


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