Last year at this time, the H1N1 virus, also referred to as the “swine flu,” had us all rather panicked. People were anxious to get vaccinated against the flu then. But what about now? My guess is that the media attention given to the H1N1 epidemic last year left a skeptical public uncertain about the impact of the flu, and the safety and effectiveness of flu shots in general. Regrettably, H1N1 made itself personally known to my family last year when my own 9-year-old niece, Brianna, received a positive diagnosis. Unfortunately, she contracted H1N1 before a vaccine became available.
I’ll admit that my sister and her husbabd were very concerned. In the back of their minds, they knew that she could easily become a tragic statistic, and the feeling was one of helplessness. They did their best to quarantine her in order to keep the virus from spreading to their other four children. They tried to make her as comfortable as possible in her room, and gave her a walkie-talkie to call them with when she needed something. They even downloaded a week’s worth of her favorite shows to keep her entertained.
Her sisters slipped get well cards under her door and they served her meals on special trays that only my sister or her husband would handle and deliver. After a week or so, my niece recovered and resumed life as usual. It sure is interesting how a brief brush with an unpredictable disease can change your perspective. The unspoken fear that we faced last year has faded into a childhood memory for Brianna. Surprisingly, it appears that public memory has been short-lived as well — which troubles me as a mom of an 8 month old.
Due to the heightened concern from last year’sH1N1 outbreak, I would have guessed that more people would be inclined to get flu shots this year. Unfortunately, it appears that a significant portion of the public is more concerned about potential side effects of the vaccine than with the consequences of falling ill with influenza. A survey of 1,500 adults, recently conducted by The consumer Reports National Research Center, indicated that 30 percent of those surveyed will skip the flu shot this year, citing concerns about side effects, exaggerated epidemic messages, and a desire to build up their own immune systems.
Another recent Time article indicates that this sentiment is echoed among many parents. The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) questioned more than 600 mothers of kids ages 6 to 18, and revealed that 80 percent of mothers said their attitude toward vaccination was not swayed by last year’s H1N1 scare and one-third were opting to forgo flu vaccination for their children, citing fear of side effects as their main concern. What the public may fail to understand is that seasonal flu vaccines are extremely safe. Consider the fact that flu vaccines are administered year after year to a large percentage of the population.
Because of this, they are some of the most widely used and well tested immunizations being administered today and their safety record is proven. So what is all the worry about? Some minimal discomfort and minor side effects? Unfortunately, many of the common worries are actually based on unfounded myths. From your local news to nationally regarded CNN, reputable news organizations are constantly working to dispel these myths with information readily available from the CDC. For instance, contracting the flu from the vaccine … out of the question. Building up your immune system by skipping the vaccine … not happening.
In fact, experts explain that the vaccine itself is what generates the immune response, which is exactly what prevents you from falling ill. That minor side effect of redness and swelling at the injection site that some may experience is further indication that your body is responding as it should. To avoid a needle entirely, healthy children and adults between the ages of 2 and 49 can even opt for a sniff of the nasal flue vaccine. Really, there is little excuse not to get vaccinated, especially since vaccination not only protects ourselves, but everyone we come in contact with.
While some measure of risk exists with every medical intervention, the risk of side effects from a flu vaccine is much smaller than the risk of actually contracting the flu. As a parent, I am constantly mitigating risks in order to keep my children safe from injury, illness and even death. Take for instance, the non-negotiable fact that my children must wear their seat belts each and every time we get in the car.
While wearing a seatbelt will certainly not prevent us from getting in an accident — and could even ause a few bruises from the powerful restraint — the fact is that the seatbelt just may save our lives if there were an accident. Now consider the surprising fact that deaths from the flu have the potential to be as high as those from car accidents. Statistics indicate that there are more than 40,000 automobile deaths each year. While the overall health impact of any given flu season varies from year to year, statistics from the CDC indicate that more than 200,000 people are hospitalized each year and that deaths have topped out as high as 48,600 in a single year.
So it just makes sense that we take any precaution we can. Just as seatbelts help to reduce the risk of injury or death in a car accident, we should consider vaccination as our virtual “safety harness” to prevent potentially deadly illness such as seasonal flu. Perhaps, if people can understand the benefits of vaccinating, they’ll be more comfortable accepting the temporary discomfort of a needle or minimal chance of minor side effects. Take the suggestion of Mayo clinic cardiologist, Dr. Kopecky, in a recent ABC story.
Worried that many of his patients weren’t getting a flu vaccine, he explained that one beneficial side effect is that vaccination can actually reduce a patient’s risk of heart attack or stroke by up to one half for an entire year. Another consideration is that getting a flu shot can actually help protect others in our community as well. For instance, a recent study in the LA Times showed a direct correlation between the number of school children immunized against the flu and a greater reduction in overall flu cases throughout an entire community.
Additionally, this type of community effort can be extremely important in protecting those who are more vulnerable to the flu, such as young children, pregnant women and people with diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and asthma. With a higher percentage of people being immunized, the entire community becomes critical in helping to “cocoon” those at greatest risk. With my children and community’s best interest in mind, I’d like to see the current epidemic of apathy toward an easily preventable virus come to a swift end this flu season.