EDITORIAL: The upside to flu shots

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Last week, like many of you, The Washington Times’ employees lined up for annual seasonal flu shots. Getting the vaccination is quick, safe for the vast majority of healthy people and - after decades of use - is proven to limit flu-related deaths. The odds are much greater that it will prevent harm than do any.

The same thinking drives the vaccination campaign against the potentially dangerous H1N1 flu strain. Only around 40 percent of Americans plan to get themselves or their children vaccinated. Reasons commonly cited to avoid the flu shot - problems with the vaccine in the 1970s, concerns about preservatives in the vaccine or doubts about the danger of H1N1 - in most cases are exaggerated or based on misinformation.

c There were about 500 cases of paralyzing Guillain-Barre syndrome reported among the 45 million inoculated for swine flu in 1976, and the feared pandemic turned out to be a dud. However, the public health response has improved over the last three decades. The H1N1 shot is functionally the same as the seasonal flu vaccine, which has been proven amazingly safe in hundreds of millions of people over decades of use. The new shot simply contains protection against a revived strain of the disease. The same holds for the nasal spray version. This year a highly intensified effort to track any problems with the new vaccines has so far turned up no major illnesses among recipients.

c Concerns about the use of thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative, in about 60 percent of swine flu shots are also discredited. Multiple rigorous studies have not produced a link to autism, which is one of the false alarms being rung on the Internet. For those still concerned, the nasal spray vaccine does not contain the substance, and single-dose preservative-free flu vaccines can be ordered from physicians.

c Since the H1N1 saga began this spring, at least 3,873 Americans have died from flu-related complications; around 600 of those were confirmed to be H1N1. There were 19 H1N1-related deaths among American children last week, pushing the number of those under 18 years old to 76 this year. About 100 kids die from seasonal flu in an average year. Flu season, which typically runs from October to May, started early this year, which means more infections than normal are likely. This is hardly a pandemic, but concerns are reasonable enough to make vaccination a good idea.

Daffy conspiracy theories abound. For example, we’ve heard the yarn that Wall Street is coordinating both the disease and the vaccine in order to cull the population, that the new H1N1 virus was manufactured and that a cartel of drug companies is behind it to boost profits.

Whether resistance to the vaccine is spurred by reasonable fears or loopy conspiracies, the result is the same. Nobody imagines a worst case scenario as in the 1918 epidemic that killed between 20 million and 100 million people, but a death toll a tiny fraction of that year’s would still be horrifying. Indeed, similar concerns about the safety of a measles and mumps vaccine in England led parents to avoid the shots over the last decade - and the diseases reasserted themselves with deadly results.

Avoiding vaccination doesn’t just hurt families making that choice. Parents and children become carriers who spread the deadly infection more quickly and more widely. The decision to vaccinate - for the benefit of both individuals and the public at large - should be driven by science, not misinformation.

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