Should You Get A Swine Flu Shot? Definitely Maybe.
It's time to stock up on hand sanitizers and tissues; flu season is upon us. Every year in the U.S. more than 200,000 people are hospitalized and 36,000 die from flu-related complications. While it's too soon to tell how extensive this year's flu outbreak might be, there's a complicating factor this season: the H1N1 virus.H1NI, known colloquially as "swine flu," started showing up in patients last spring. In June, the World Health Organization declared swine flu a pandemic. By late August, the agency said there were more than 210,000 cases of swine flu and at least 2,185 deaths worldwide. The WHO cautions, however, that these numbers may be grossly under-reported because hard-hit countries have quit counting individual cases.
It's time to stock up on hand sanitizers and tissues; flu season is upon us. Every year in the U.S. more than 200,000 people are hospitalized and 36,000 die from flu-related complications. While it's too soon to tell how extensive this year's flu outbreak might be, there's a complicating factor this season: the H1N1 virus.
H1NI, known colloquially as "swine flu," started showing up in patients last spring. In June, the World Health Organization declared swine flu a pandemic. By late August, the agency said there were more than 210,000 cases of swine flu and at least 2,185 deaths worldwide. The WHO cautions, however, that these numbers may be grossly under-reported because hard-hit countries have quit counting individual cases.
Over the summer, a handful of large pharmaceutical companies including Novartis and Sanofi-Aventis began working on a vaccine. On Tuesday, Sept. 15, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave Norvatis and Sanofi the green light to start producing their vaccine strains. Although vaccines won't be available to the public until mid-October, many people are currently contemplating whether or not they should get the H1N1 shot.
According to guidelines drafted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are five key populations that should be vaccinated against the H1N1 virus:
*People who live with or care for children younger than 6 months of age
*Children and young people between the ages of 6 months and 24 years
*Health care workers and emergency medical service providers
*People between 25 and 64 years of age who have chronic medical disorders or compromised immune systems.
The above groups account for approximately 159 million Americans. The CDC urges these at-risk populations to get both the swine flu shot and the seasonal flu shot. (The regular flu shot doesn't protect against the H1N1 virus.) So what should the remaining half of the U.S. population do this flu season? The answer isn't clear, especially in light of the 1976 swine flu debacle.
In 1976, a 19-year-old Army private stationed in Fort Dix, N.J., died from the swine flu, while another 115 soldiers stationed there tested positive for swine flu antibodies. The CDC was called in to investigate, and its scientists concluded that the soldiers had a strain similar to the Spanish Influenza of 1918, which was responsible for the deadliest human pandemic of the 20th century. Although the virus hadn't spread beyond the fort, the CDC convinced then-president Gerald Ford's advisors that a mass inoculation was required. Pharmaceutical companies rushed to develop a vaccine.
By mid-October of 1976, approximately 40 million people had been vaccinated against swine flu and not long after, reports of serious side effects began to pour in. Within a couple of months, 25 people died from Guillain-Barré, a neuromuscular disorder that can result in paralysis or death, and an additional 500 were diagnosed with the condition. (Doctor's don't know what causes Guillain-Barré, but it can develop after a post-surgery infection or vaccination.)
Inoculations were halted, but the damage had already been done. The U.S. government was forced to pay out millions of dollars in liability claims, and the CDC's once sterling reputation was tarnished.
Today, while CDC spokesman Tom Skinner acknowledges the problems that plagued 1976 inoculation program, he says that this time around his agency and the FDA have taken extra steps to protect the public. "We have good surveillance monitors in place," he says, referring to the Vaccine Adverse Effect Reporting System (VAERS), a mechanism that allows the public to report and monitor adverse reactions to inoculations.
But Skinner's not expecting any major health risks associated with the current H1N1 vaccine. "We aren't expecting any side effects beyond what we normally see," he says. Typical side effects include soreness at the injection site and mild body aches.
But it's too early to tell if the vaccine is safe and effective, cautions Yanzhong Andrew Huang, an infectious disease specialist and director of the Center for Global Health Studies at Seton Hall University's Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations. "According to clinical trial results, Big Pharma has told us it is safe and effective, but we won't know the side effects until large groups of people have been vaccinated," says Huang.
He also contends that the current swine flu virus, while contagious, is relatively mild. "The virulence is basically the same as seasonal influenza," he says. And even if that's too much for some to risk catching, Huang says that getting an H1N1 shot might not provide full protection if the virus mutates. "We've been told that the second viral wave might be more lethal, and that would make the vaccine less effective," he says.
Huang, who is careful to note that he's not a medical doctor, says it's too early in the season to determine whether the risk of getting a swine flu shot outweighs the benefit. He does, however, think it's a good idea to get a seasonal flu shot. "I get one every year and plan to get one this year," he adds.
For the rest of us, the decision about whether or not to get the H1N1 vaccine should be made by consulting a physician. In the meantime, keep washing your hands.