The swine-flu bug is in the air. A flu type last seen memorably in 1976, it's an alarmingly catchy strand. I was born in 1977, so I don't have any natural resistance to it. My kids are 6 weeks old and almost 4. And once my maternity leave is over in two weeks, I'll be working every day in a hospital or medical office, where the chances of exposure are high. So it won't surprise you to know that I'm eager to get vaccinated.
The problem is that none of my doctors seems to know when the vaccine will appear.
I called my OB and kids' pediatrician last week, and there's no new information except that it's coming soon. I know I'm not the only anxious patient calling. I could tell by the patient-but-practiced responses I got from the nurses. All the flu shot trials are complete, according to the National Institutes of Health. So we hope the vaccine is on the truck and will arrive soon.
Vaccine hysteria? I'll cop to it, along with the rest of the anxious moms, health workers, and hypochondriacs. (Count me in all three groups!) But I feel good about this kind of hysteria. It's better than the other kind that's so often linked to vaccines.
I'm talking about what's become a culture of fear around getting the shots. More than a third of parents don't want their kids vaccinated for swine flu, according to a recent Associated Press-GfK poll. Many fear that vaccines do more harm than good. This comes up a lot with the scientifically discredited link between vaccines and autism-related developmental disorders. There's also the conventional wisdom that a flu shot can "make you sick."
The vaccine-autism controversy has mostly run its course. Celebrities such as playmate Jenny McCarthy and actress Amanda Peet argued about whether to vaccinate kids. Peet called McCarthy and the other vaccine-phobic parents "parasites" for relying on the immunity of others to hold off measles, small pox, polio, and other now-rare diseases.
I am not that rabid, but the science at least is clear. "If you decide not to vaccinate your child, you put your child at risk. Your child could catch a disease that is dangerous or deadly," says the American Academy of Pediatrics.
It has been a long time since the hospital wards were filled with kids on iron-lung machines suffering from polio. And it's been almost a century since a worldwide flu killed more than 20 million people. That's probably why some people have not been getting the message about the importance of vaccines.
Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted 131 cases of measles in the first half of the year, more than double what it had been for the preceding year. More than 90 percent of those cases were in unvaccinated children or those with unknown vaccination status. And half of those did not get vaccines because of "philosophical or religious beliefs."
The modern hysteria about vaccines has affected decisions surrounding the supply of the swine flu vaccine. Although the United States is supposed to get some 200 million doses, other countries might not be so lucky. Fear of an additive, called an adjuvant, that could make each dose go further has made U.S. health officials decide that it's better to leave it out. That will limit the doses available in developing countries.
Aside from that, most of the hysteria is of the encouraging kind. People want their shots. Perhaps that's because the threat of H1N1 is real. According to the World Health Organization, 340,000 worldwide have been affected, with 4,100 dead. My pediatrician advised me not to get on a plane with my infant because the virus is so contagious.
Sometimes concerns about vaccines are just plain irrational, even among doctors. Last year one of our residents, who is a particularly astute clinician, opted not to get the flu shot. He boasted that he had never gotten the flu shot and had never gotten sick. Why would he get it now?
We all joked about his overconfidence. Then the next week he got really sick and had to miss work, though he claims it wasn't the flu. I asked him whether he will get the seasonal flu shot this year. "Probably." And the H1N1 vaccine? "Potentially," he said. "We'll see."
Vaccines are modern miracles. The last naturally occurring case of small pox was in 1977 in Somalia. Polio is still out there, with several public health groups working toward eradication. The latest miracle: an AIDS vaccine appears to cut transmission rates by a third. Over time, that could save millions of lives worldwide.
Now, if I could only get my hands on the H1N1 vaccine.