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Washington Sketch: Elmo Has a Message About Swine Flu

The swine flu epidemic is likely to be a monster, so the government called in Elmo.
The swine flu epidemic is likely to be a monster, so the government called in Elmo. (By Ron Thomas -- Associated Press)
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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, September 2, 2009

After months of preparation and umpteen billions of dollars, the federal government came out Tuesday with its swine flu response. It is red and furry and giggles in a high-pitched voice.

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"Come on! Wash your hands with Elmo! Wash, wash, wash!" the Muppet from Sesame Street sings in a public service announcement released Tuesday by the Obama administration. "Sneeze into your arm with Elmo," the character adds. "Ah-choo!"

Word of this new federal initiative was released at 8:51 Tuesday morning, in an e-mail straight from the White House press office announcing the partnership with Sesame Workshop aimed at "stressing healthy habits to prevent H1N1 flu." The administration is hoping Elmo's good hygiene will go, uh, viral.

Nothing against Elmo, but it was a stark expression of the federal government's impotence as the nation braces for the pandemic. The authorities expect the swine flu to reach its peak in October and sicken as many as half of all Americans, but the bulk of the vaccine doses won't arrive until November or December. That means tens of thousands, many of them children, could die unnecessarily -- and the government is powerless to do much but recommend hand-washing and sleeve-sneezing.

The president himself went to the Rose Garden on Tuesday afternoon to echo Elmo's message. "Wash your hands frequently," the commander in chief recommended as he stood with Cabinet officers and public health chiefs. He did everything but sing "Wash, wash, wash" the way Elmo does in the video. "Cover your sneezes with your sleeve, not your hands," the leader of the free world continued.

This reliance on Muppets rather than medicine is not the fault of the Obama administration, which has done about the best it could with limited tools. It's the result of years of failure to build adequate vaccine-manufacturing capacity in the United States. Too little work on new vaccine technologies means producers of flu shots still rely on the ancient method of making inoculations with chicken eggs. And the anemic public health system will almost surely buckle this fall as flu sufferers flood emergency rooms.

If there's any good news, it's that the government may be jolted into building an adequate vaccine and public health infrastructure before a more severe pandemic comes along with the potential to kill millions of Americans instead of mere thousands. In the meantime, the best the feds can do is try to slow the spread of the germs until the vaccines arrive -- and that's why it's time to meet the Muppets.

Even before venturing into Elmo's world, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius had already taken the field at Nationals Park along with the Teddy Roosevelt plush mascot with hygiene tips "so easy even Teddy can do them." As the 10-foot-tall Teddy demonstrated, Sebelius advised: "Wash your hands frequently with soap and water. Cough or sneeze into a tissue or into your elbow."

HHS has even offered a $2,500 prize for the best public service video on flu prevention. Among the finalists: A guy who keeps his distance from other people by walking around with a chain saw ("one quick tug and the sidewalk's all mine"), a man who wears his yellow hazmat suit on a date, and a doctor singing a rap song:

A sanitizer -- I advise you get it. Why?

It makes germs die when you rub it -- let it dry.

Not bad. But Obama, appearing in the Rose Garden, said his administration had "done an extraordinary job in preparing for this flu outbreak." And to make the effort truly extraordinary, the feds decided to go to Sesame Street. "We are thrilled to partner with Elmo," Sebelius announced in Tuesday's news release, which disclosed that four reformatted Sesame Street videos were being posted at Flu.gov and that others would be produced.


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