Those of you who read the skeptical blogs may be sick (har har) of this topic already, but it can’t hurt to repeat it, especially with the fears and misreporting that abound. Flu season is upon us, and H1N1 (swine flu) is prominently in the spotlight. As public mistrust of vaccines rises, it takes a little effort to find the answers amidst the noise. I will be getting the seasonal flu vaccine this year, and hopefully the H1N1 vaccine if it is still available. Here’s a little bit that I’ve learned about this issue and I’ll try and address the most common arguments that I’ve encountered.
The flu isn’t a big deal. Numerically, statistically, it probably won’t be a big deal. 36,000 Americans die of the flu each year, so although it is a terrible sadness in each and every case, the threat to any one life is small. In fact, as far as I can tell, I’ve never had a serious flu infection, so I never considered getting the vaccine. However, I work with young children once a week at the Virginia Discovery Museum, and occasionally I do outreach at local elementary schools. Kids are friggin germ factories! I don’t want to get sick, I’m too busy to get sick. And how terrible would I feel if somehow I knew I gave the flu to a child who then had complications? Add to that, the H1N1 strain, which appears no more deadly than a regular flu overall, carries a greater risk of causing complications in normally healthy, low-risk people. Actually, in this case, older people were exposed to a similar virus in 1957, so they are more likely to be resistant to H1N1 in the first place. (The timeline is fascinating!) Okay so better safe than sorry, right?
The H1N1 vaccine is untested. There is one thing that is “untested” about it. We don’t know for sure how effective it will be against the virus “in the wild.” However, it is just as tested as every regular old seasonal vaccine, and the methods of production go back to the 1930s. Every year, the genetic code of the flu that is targeted is all that changes. The fact that the World Health Organization knew from previous activity that H1N1 would be back to rear its ugly head is a good thing, since the vaccine only works if it targets the “popular” strains for that season. But to say it is unsafe because it is untested is to miss out on the fact that except for a bit of genetic material, it’s the same stuff we get every year.
But what about Guillain-Barre syndrome! Pandemic reports that spur mass vaccinations cause some to fear the rare but nasty side effects that cropped up in 1976 after mass vaccinations due to swine flu. And like I said before, even if the numbers are small, better safe than sorry, right? Guillain-Barre syndrome is an autoimmune disorder, meaning, the body’s defense system attacks itself. There was a spike in GBS after the vaccine was administered in 1976, adding up to 1 new case of GBS per million people. However, researchers have recently found that 40 to 70 people out of one million who get the flu develop GBS. In fact, GBS is often triggered by some kind of infection. So your chances of avoiding GBS increase with vaccination against the flu!
But… but… the backwards walking cheerleader! Okay, okay, so say we find that one in a million and put her on TV. Except we’re not talking about GBS but dystonia. This is a neurological condition, not an autoimmune disorder, and such a correlation has never been made before. But when looked at more closely, it’s not clear that the situation is dystonia at all, but rather a psychogenic condition. When Tim first sent me the disturbing video, it was fairly easy to find this explanation, but Steve Novella handily updates us on the situation.
It’s all a government conspiracy*! I… don’t even have the patience for that. Go put on your tinfoil hat and promise not to sneeze on me, okay?
So next time I hear some damn celebrity say that I should “educate myself” in a disdainful way because I am in favor of vaccinations, you can see that I already have. (I’m looking at you, Brent Spiner.) Sometimes it’s good to be part of the herd. Herd immunity, that is.
New Scientist: Swine Flu Myths… Okay, the rest of the headline is a bit fear-mongering-y, but the information is good.
UVa H1N1 Information, or, damn dirty undergrads
Centers for Disease Control: Seasonal Influenza – be a part of the government conspiracy!
An Influenza Primer by pediatrician Joseph Albietz