Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Now posting at The Boston Globe's "Child Caring" blog!

My newest gig just went live -- I'll be guest posting for a while at The Boston Globe's newly resurrected "Child Caring" blog.

Right now, we're talking about whether the flu vaccine is overrated.

I knew I was in trouble the instant my 2-year-old rubbed his face and then laid his damp little hand on my cheek. No symptoms yet, but the sign was clear: Cold and flu season was in full swing.

A few days later, he was streaming from the nose and I was wishing I'd bought stock in Purell. A few days after that, he was fine but a couple of our other kids were coughing and I'd been felled by a fever so high even I had to call in to work (and, if you know me, you know that I rarely call in sick).

The flu shot is recommended for people with compromised immune systems, including the very old, the very young, and their caregivers, but no one in my family falls into those categories, so when my company's medical department offered the flu shot, but I didn't get it. On purpose. Neither did my husband, nor any of our five kids. Call me crazy, but I'm with the Mayo Clinic on this one: I believe that a good, soapy hand-washing can do a lot to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses. I'll take it over the flu vaccine.

Aside from the whole Thimerosal issue (the flu vaccine is one of the few that still uses the mercury-laced preservative, but a nasal-spray version of the vaccine does not), the main reason I avoid the flu vaccine is that it doesn't work for about 85 percent of people who exhibit flu-like symptoms.

Why not? Two reasons.

For one thing, researchers divide influenza into two types, influenza A or B, and "all other forms of influenza." Both kinds produce exactly the same symptoms -- headache, fever, muscle aches, cough, and runny nose -- but the vaccine only works on some versions of influenza A or B, not on the "all other forms."

For another, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the formulation of the vaccine changes every year, kind of a luck-of-the-draw attempt to come up with a vaccine that will be effective against the widest range of A and B strains out there -- and this year, early research out of Canada, the United States, and Britain shows that the vaccine was mismatched. Which means that the strain of flu that the vaccine was designed to protect us against isn't the strain that's making most people sick.

Besides, if I did happen to fall among the lucky few who encounter a form of the flu that the vaccine can prevent, it takes as long as two weeks for your body to start producing antibodies once you've gotten the shot. Which means that you can end up with a sore arm AND a raging case of the flu. Which, coincidentally, is exactly what happened to me the first and only time I got a flu shot, years and years ago.

Thanks, but no thanks. I'll take my chances with my kids and their school and daycare bugs. What I have right now may be the flu -- in which case, I've got some awesome antibodies in development. And if it's not, well, I'll just brace myself for the rest of the season.

What do you think? Sound off in the comments! And if you have a parenting topic you'd like to see addressed over there, please e-mail me -- I'm always open to ideas!

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