In the mid 1970s, I was a medic in the U.S. Army. That’s also the period of the last outbreak of the swine flu or Novel H1N1 as we refer to it today. True to form, the military ordered mandatory immunizations and, as I was working in an Army dispensary, we administered the shot to the GIs in our corner of the world. Not long after, we experienced a very high incidence of GIs who returned with flu-like symptoms. We all believed it was the result of the vaccine.
To this day I’m convinced this was the truth and it has taken considerable convincing that flu vaccines of any kind are safe. But, after a few years and more education in the medical field I decided to venture out and try the flu vaccine again. I really expected to get sick and braced for what I believed to be inevitable. Well, it didn’t happen. I remained healthy and was also protected from the seasonal flu of those years. Most recently, I received the Novel H1N1 vaccine and experienced no side effects.
It seems the way vaccines are made changed, and like most things, improved as we learned more. In the 1970s, a live virus was used to create immunity, that’s why we got sick. Today we use a dead virus or a live virus that has been changed so it cannot cause a full-fledged case of the flu.
There are other questions regarding safety and efficacy surrounding this vaccine. But, as it is very likely that Novel H1N1 will be a dominant viral influenza for several years, and as vaccine is the most effective means of protection, questions need to be cleared up to raise public confidence.
Another powerful influence on public confidence has been the Internet. Anyone can self proclaim expertise in any area and the followers will line up spreading incorrect information as fact. The Lancet, a well-respected medical professional publication, quoted Steven Black, M.D., adjunct professor at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, stating Internet Web browsing “has increasingly allowed for spurious associations to be promoted as fact. Reports of false associations ‘can disrupt immunization programs, often to the detriment of public health.’”
Pregnant women are a priority for H1N1 vaccination because they have increased vulnerability to serious complications should they become infected with the virus. Thousands of women who are pregnant have received the vaccine without serious side effects (including miscarriage). In fact, pregnant women who are immunized are also protecting their baby for up to 6 months after birth.
Another concern includes Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), in which the body damages its own nerve cells causing muscle weakness and sometimes paralyses. In the mid 1970s, the swine flu immunization was connected with this condition as 1 in every 100,000 developed this syndrome following vaccination. Thus far, most studies indicate no such connection at this time.
It’s interesting to note that GBS is often associated with illnesses such as the flu and one is more likely to develop GBS from the flu than from the Novel H1N1 vaccine.
Thiomersal is a preservative which contains a small amount of mercury. It contains ethyl mercury which is relatively safe in contrast to methyl mercury which tends to accumulate in the body. The amount of mercury in this preservative, which is only found in the multi dose vial, is comparable to the amount of mercury found in half a tuna fish sandwich. The vaccine is also available in the single dose vial, which does not contain any mercury.
Across the country and in the rest of the world, side effects are being closely watched. Thus far in the hundreds of thousands of doses given, 1 in 3 developed a sore arm at the injection site. About 10 to15 percent experienced tiredness, headache, nausea, and/or developed a low-grade fever.
No deaths have been reported related to the Novel H1N1 vaccine; however, anaphylactic shock is a rare possibility. This is most likely to occur within the first few minutes to few hours after the shot. People allergic to eggs should not get the shot for this reason.
Overall, is the Novel H1N1 vaccine 100 percent safe? The answer is no. But, as one who previously worked in the pharmaceutical industry and has taught pharmacology, I know that all medications have side effects, but given in the correct amount they can be therapeutic and benefit our lives.
So a choice must be weighed between the potential for generally mild side effects or possibly contracting a real flu virus that will take seven to 10 days to get over, risking the possibility of severe complications and infecting family members and other members of the community.
Prevention is better than panic, protection by vaccination is the safest option.