Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Back on the fence about the flu shot

One after another, my kids have come down with flu-like symptoms this summer. Two of them ended up with pneumonia (one mild case, one severe), and when I took my 4-year-old in to have her pediatrician listen to her lungs yet again, we discovered that she might also have a touch of asthma. Her doctor looked at me and said: "Of course, you're getting her vaccinated for the flu, right?"

And I... hesitated.

I used to think the flu shot was overrated and, to some extent, I still do. But since Thimerosal isn't an issue with the vaccines being offered in my area, I think the benefits outweigh the risks for my children. (Well, my youngest two children. My oldest three are my steps and, as such, vaccinating them isn't my call.)

At's Child Caring blog, I'm back on the fence about the flu shot, and my readers are weighing in.

"Getting the flu shot" makes it seem like one jab and you're protected, but that's not actually the case. The seasonal flu vaccine requires "at least two shots" for many patients, and neither the inactivated influenza vaccine nor the LAIV nasal spray (FluMist) protect people from the H1N1 virus, a.k.a. Swine Flu. A vaccine for H1N1 is still being developed (doses are expected to become available in October), and officials do not know whether it'll require one or two doses to be effective.

And here's where my hesitation comes in: In 1976, the last time the swine flu made the rounds, the vaccine against it was linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disease in which the body damages its own nerve cells. Back then, the vaccination effort was halted after just 10 weeks because more people died from complications of the vaccine than from the swine flu itself.

There hasn't been an official word on whether Guillain-Barre is an issue this time around. Nevertheless, New York City has already announced plans to innoculate kids against swine flu for free. (It's voluntary, and will require parental consent, but still, I have to wonder: How far of a step is it from "making it available" to "making it manditory"?)

There's good reason to try protect your kids -- and yourself -- from a swine flu infection. The H1N1 strain seems to be more dangerous than the 1976 version. Unlike with the seasonal flu, about one in 13 U.S. swine flu deaths have been children, and most of the victims have been of school age. The virus blasted through 177 countries in the first four months after it was identified, according to the CDC; the World Health Organization says that lab tests have confirmed H1N1 in 2,185 deaths and more than 209,000 infections, even though most people who come down with swine flu aren't tested. And bacterial co-infections -- when a bacterial infection sets in while the patient's body is weakened from a virus -- are an even bigger danger.

But what we seem to forget amid all of the swine-flu hype and hysteria is that the plain old regular seasonal flu is pretty deadly, too. The CDC estimates that 36,000 people in the United States die from the seasonal flu each year.

So, whether you're waiting for the H1N1 vaccine to become available, or you've already endured your seasonal flu jab, you should still take all the usual precautions: Wash your hands, use hand sanitizer, cover your cough, avoid contact with people who show sympoms, and stay home if you're sick. Easier said than done for many of us, but still good advice.

Are you or your kids getting the flu shot and the H1N1 vaccine this year? Why or why not?

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