Friday, October 23, 2009

H1N1 Vaccination Hysteria Part 2: Should I get the shot?

This is the second post in a series about the science and societal impacts of the flu and flu vaccination. Specifically, I emphasize the importance of sound scientific literacy in understanding this important topic. Please read the first post in the series if you missed it.
Is the Swine Flu Vaccine Safe?

Vaccines can be really scary and intimidating, so I completely understand if you're nervous; but your doctor, the news, and the public health departments advise you to get vaccinated. Today, I address the question on many people's minds:
Do I really need to get the Swine Flu Shot?

What I'm hearing from many people is "I’ll be fine. I don’t think I need the Swine Flu or Seasonal Flu vaccine." Perhaps. But think about this way: How can your body fight a disease-causing germ it has never come into contact with?

Your Immune System and Immune Response
Your best line of defense is to avoid contact with a germ. Stay away from sick people, wash hands, and keep germs from inside of your body - via mouth, nose, and eyes. If the flu virus does get inside it's going to do its best to get to a warm moist organ like your lungs and wreak havoc.

When germs get into your body, your Primary Immune Response gets to work. It is a non-discriminating attack system on anything foreign. There is an inflammation response or fever to kill the germs with heat. White blood cells attack and kill. Phages swallow germs whole. Neutrophils blow up germs.

(Inflammation Response)

(White Blood Cells)



Next up is the Secondary Immune Response. It is a specific attack system that memorizes, hunts down, and attacks specific germs. Special Memory cells (B-cells and T-cells) are created that memorize signatures of every germ that you've have come into contact with and if it comes back into your body they go after the germ and destroys it. Vaccines are medicines derived from disease-causing germs that are intentionally introduced in your body to activate your immune response to create memory cells. Now, if or when you come into contact with the real live version of the germ, your immune system is ready and can fight it off. For some diseases like the flu and swine flu, catching the full-scale flu may cause you to get so sick that it may take a long time to recover or cause death.

Why certain people are recommended for vaccinations
Babies & Young Children. Your immune system is a little less than perfect when you are young. Your body is a blank slate. Babies have only primary defenders and no secondary defenders - unless they are breast fed. Breast milk provides some of mom's defense cells but they provide only temporary assistance. As kids become exposed to germs - getting sick all of the time - they are actually building their Memory Cell army. Vaccinations help out in the same way, but without getting sick.

Older people. As you age, your defenders aren't as swift and handy as they use to be. Especially if you have health problems, your Memory Cells might need a help remember who the germs are. Vaccinations help maintain your Memory Cell army is its best possible condition.
These two groups are the most vulnerable becoming sick, especially from life-threatening diseases.

Moms and caretakers. As I hinted to above, mom can pass on some immune help to her baby in breast milk. But more importantly when mom gets the vaccine, she's protecting herself from getting the flu, and a healthy mama can't pass the flu onto baby and toddlers. The same thing for other adults who take care of young kids, older people or sick people.

Actually, between the ages of 17 and 22, you are at your peak immune response defense. Things decline after 22, but if you're healthy, eat right, and do all of the preventative things recommended by doctors, you're actually in pretty good shape to fight off non-lethal germs. This doesn't mean you may never get sick, but you should be fine. Typically, young adults and adults are not usually highly recommended for Flu shots - unless they are caretakers.

However, Swine Flu is breaking all of the rules - it's a Young Person's Disease. Otherwise healthy people 25 and younger are getting ill from this disease, being hospitalized at higher rates and dying from it. Frankly, that concerns me about this virus and that's why people 30 and younger are being recommended for vaccination. Moreover, both the seasonal and H1N1 (Swine) flu are already widespread and we are still 2-3 months from the peak Flu season. For these two reasons I think vaccination is worth serious consideration.

Deciding what to do
It's important to assess your risk for catching the flu. Right now, with the flu hitting early, I think it's a good chance many people will come into contact with.
You also need to assess your own and your family's health. Could you handle catching the swine flu? Could you handle the other things that come with it, like pneumonia and dehydration.
Finally, you must weight the side-effects of getting the shot to getting to flu. First and foremost, the vaccine is safe. Second, you will not get the flu from the flu shot, though many people believe they do. What usually happens is a immune response to the
weakened germ or a cold you were harboring to the shot.

But my take home point is that vaccines offer a way for your body to confront a serious disease without actually having to risk dying or becoming seriously ill. Ultimately, it's up to you to decide, but it's important to note that vaccines are only made and manufactured for very risky, life-threatening highly communicable diseases, not the less-threatening ones.

2009 H1N1 Influenza Vaccine Questions & Answers, CDC
Flu Vaccine Fact Sheet, CDC
Experts say H1N1 vaccine is safe and time-tested

Flu Shot reactions
Why did I get sick after I had the flu shot?
Flu Symptoms including a zip-code tracker


Kate said...

Agreed, getting the H1N1 vaccine would be a great idea... if only it were available. There is some nasal spray in our state, mostly given to infants at risk, but the shot isn't expected to be available to the public until January. By then a whole lot of people are going to be sick.

Here in New Mexico, a lot of people are getting H1N1... the hospitals are pretty flooded, and for a state with such a low population, it seems we're getting an awful lot of deaths.

So what good does it do to tell us to get vaccinated when the shot still isn't available in many locations, and won't be until the peak flu season is over?

It's no wonder the less educated are turning to internet scams to try to stay healthy! I'd guess that if swine flu shot were readily available, a lot of the scare and stupidity would die down. Basically, people want to live. They may spout a lot of stupidity, but all that talk hasn't dampened the panicked rush for flu vaccine, even if it's just the seasonal vaccine. I predict when the swine flu vaccine is available as a shot, it'll be the same thing.

Marimoy said...

I haven't posted on here in a while, but thanks for this. I still won't get one, but I love the very straightforward approach you have taken to explaining the scientific merits of said vaccine. We do have vaccine here in the islands, but caretakers, teachers, and people who work in tourism are priority, I think. If there is still some left after they all get one, I will wait in line.

Rue said...

As a mom, I am not sure what to do -- the arguments for both sides are equally compelling. Then there is the hysteria and fear mongering (fears of child death/deformity) which doesn't help. Still deciding...did you get one?

DNLee said...

Great question Rue.

I haven't. It's not available in my area yet and I'm not in the priority group. I don't have any young children and I am not around any. BUT, if it is available before I go home for Thanksgiving I will get it. I have a toddler niece and another one due any day. I plan on spending a lot of time with them snuggling and kissing - so I don't want to risk making them ill.

I don't mean to contribute to the fear mongering - but it is something to be concerned about. My main position is that we should be more worried about the flu, not the vaccine. Vaccines actually help us against diseases that cause harm.

I'll be posting 2 more Swine flu posts this week.

Anonymous said...

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Joan Stepsen
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