The Psychology of the Flu Vaccine Shortage

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When items are scarce people line up for them in droves. Scarcity has cachet. There really is something to economists' thoughts about supply and demand.

A recent telling example is the flu shot.

Pregnant women, the elderly, and children who have resisted public health warnings in the past to be inoculated are overwhelming doctors' offices, supermarkets, and clinics to be first in line for a shot. Otherwise law-abiding people push, shove, and behave rudely as they line up and wait impatiently for their turn to get a flu shot. Law-abiding citizens who are not eligible for a shot under this year's vaccine-shortage-inspired guidelines are willing to pay exorbitant prices for black market shots, ignoring the possibility that what they get in the mail is not the real thing.

Is there a public health lesson in all of this? If shortages make people more intensely aware of the benefits they may be foregoing -- ones they take for granted in a normal year -- then there are opportunities to educate the public in the midst of this situation:

--Should the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) announce that there is only enough of certain popular antibiotics to allow people to receive a three-day prescription, while reminding/educating the public about the fact that ten days of an antibiotic are necessary to really treat most infections?

--Would the public learn about appropriate dosage and comply with treatment guidelines if the message were framed as one about scarcity of antibiotic and the resultant rationing to only the most needy?

--And the method of teaching-by-scarcity could, if one wanted to play devil's advocate, be expanded beyond vaccines. How about the importance of hand washing? Would a rationing of the amount of water at bathroom faucets educate the public about the importance of hand-washing as a simple but effective disease preventor?

It remains to be seen if those clamoring about the scarcity of vaccine will learn a lesson about vaccines' importance -- and take their medicine -- when this flu shot crisis is over.

Elissa P. Benedek, M.D., is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan and an Advisor to the American Council on Science and Health.