Debate Over H1N1 Vaccine? There Shouldn't Be One

H1N1 Vaccine i i

hide captionDoses of H1N1 influenza vaccine sit in a basket at Rush University Medical Center October 6, 2009 in Chicago, Illinois.

Scott Olson/Getty Images
H1N1 Vaccine

Doses of H1N1 influenza vaccine sit in a basket at Rush University Medical Center October 6, 2009 in Chicago, Illinois.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Be sure to get all of your H1N1 information at NPR's swine flu hub.

Public health authorities at the federal, state and local levels are clear in their recommendations: virtually everyone should get a pandemic flu shot, with precedence given to those at increased risk of infection and complications.

So, first in line to get the vaccine are pregnant women and those who live with or take care of children younger than six months of age (too young to be vaccinated). Then come health care and emergency services workers and young people from six months to 24 years old. Also people who are older than 24 with diabetes, asthma or other diseases that make them high risk. Finally, all of us middle-aged and older people who are healthy.

Given these straightforward recommendations, why wouldn't you want to get the vaccine?

First concern: some people are afraid the new vaccine isn't safe: it hasn't been tested enough, they rushed to make it too quickly, I don't want to be a guinea pig.

Wrong.

This new vaccine was made the same way, with the same ingredients, at the same factories, as regular seasonal flu vaccine, which is an extremely safe vaccine. There has been no evidence of harm or serious side effects in the vaccine trials that were conducted, and the worst you can expect from the vaccine is a sore arm for a day or two.

Second concern: Why get the vaccine when everyone says the pandemic flu is a mild disease: a few days, a little cough and fever. And I probably won't get it anyway.

Wrong and wrong.

While it's true that most people who have gotten the disease have not been seriously ill, people under age 50 have no immunity to this virus, which means it's very infectious. And when you have a lot of people infected — and we're talking tens of millions here — some of them are going to get very sick, get hospitalized, and even die. It's happened in many states already: young, previously healthy people and pregnant women are dying from pandemic influenza. And that's big news.

Related to the last concern is the opinion that there is no need to get the vaccine because you can just take one of the antiviral medicines to treat your flu if it gets bad.

Doug Kamerow

hide captionFamily physician Douglas Kamerow, a former Assistant Surgeon General, is a chief scientist at the research institute RTI International. He lives in Maryland.

Jimmy Crawford/RTI

Wrong.

While it is true that so far we have antiviral medicines that are effective treatments for pandemic flu, they need to be reserved for severe cases or for people who are at increased risk of becoming very ill, like those with asthma. If everyone starts using antiviral medicines, the flu virus will likely mutate to become resistant to the medicines and we're in big trouble.

Finally, some people say they can't afford the new vaccine, especially if they have already paid for the regular, seasonal flu vaccine.

Wrong.

You've already paid for the vaccine with your taxes. The federal government has bought all the vaccine and is giving it away. The most you'll pay is an administration fee, and many people will pay nothing at all.

Bottom line? The pandemic flu vaccine is safe, effective, cheap (or free), and necessary. Unless you're allergic to eggs, when it becomes available in your area, make sure you get it, and make especially sure your kids do.

Family physician Douglas Kamerow, a former assistant surgeon general, is a chief scientist at the research institute RTI International. He lives in Maryland.

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