The Thinker

You and your kids need flu shots

According to recent polls, more than a third of parents say they are unlikely to have their children vaccinated against the H1N1 (Swine) flu, which is now raging across the United States. This news comes despite other polls where fully three quarters of Americans agree this flu is a serious national health problem.

As a parent, I have to shake my head. These parents are either wacked out, dreadfully misinformed or simply don’t give a damn about their children’s health. I will go with the assumption that most parents love their children, so I will assume most fall into the “dreadfully misinformed” category. Who knows what paranoid fantasies these parents are conjuring up about this shot? Perhaps they are thinking their kid will be like that 14-year old girl in England who died after getting vaccination for the HPV virus. They might have missed the evidence that her death was wholly unrelated to the vaccination. Or maybe these parents are just paranoid tea-baggers, convinced that the government is intent on killing their kids. This may be a sizeable crowd but I would still have to lump these into the “wacked out” category.

Some others may have heard that you can catch the flu from getting a flu shot. Now this is possible, though unlikely. You are only at risk if you opt for the nasal spray rather than an injection. To work, the nasal spray must use a live (but mutated) virus. It is unlikely you will notice anything, but if you do, you are most likely to get mild cold symptoms. On the other hand, it could also be that you just happened to contract some other flu or cold at the same time.

However, if you get the flu shot in your arm, you will be injected with a dead virus, which means there is no possible way it could give you the flu. Nor can it happen to your children. They may not like the momentary sting of the injection but that is a silly excuse not to get them a shot, and borders on child abuse.

What we do know is that H1N1 flu affects children and young adults disproportionately. They are much more likely to get it, and they are much more likely to have a more severe case than the rest of us. I have had two cases of it in the class I teach at a local community college, and in both cases, the student was out for more than a week. I know a few adults who have had H1N1 and they reported mild fevers and a quick recovery. It is believed that this is because the virus is similar to one that went around three decades ago, so they have a partial resistance. In any event, this flu is now definitely in the pandemic stage. It exists in most communities of any significant size. In many communities, hospitals are setting up triage tents outside the hospital to deal with the deluge of cases. It is expected to peak over the next month or so and then slowly taper off. The only real question is whether the flu will get to you before you can get the shot. That depends on your carefulness and how fast (or whether you choose) to avail yourself of a flu shot.

I have a good reason to delay getting a flu shot. Because I am middle aged, if I do contract it, it is likely to be mild for me. Although I hate the flu, I would be happy to let young adults, children, pregnant women and other highest-risk groups get their shot before me. (At 52, I have reached the age where I am at some risk of death from the flu, so an annual flu shot is recommended.) What I do know is that there is a shot available for every man, woman and child in the United States. It’s already paid for. If you get the shot from your local doctor or drug store they may charge you a small administrative fee, but it won’t be for the shot itself. They will receive it for free. If you are bothered by an administrative fee, assuming it is charged at all, make an appointment with a local public health clinic and get it free there instead.

There are other specious worries about this flu shot. For example, some worry that because it was manufactured outside the United States the quality control will be bad. This is not a problem. The FDA has a long established process of rigorously monitoring vaccine production. The vaccine is outsourced mainly because our drug companies say it’s not profitable enough for them to manufacture it. Frankly, you have a much higher likelihood of being hit by lightning than being the victim of a badly manufactured flu shot. I wish our food supply were as well regulated as our flu shots. We’d never have to worry about getting sick from E. coli or other nasty bugs.

Others simply trust to luck. They figure they won’t get it, so why get a shot? And if they are lucky, surely it must rub off on their kids too! The problem with this philosophy is that it is stupid. Just because you don’t get it this year doesn’t mean you won’t get it, or a variant of it, in the future. Moreover, flu shots help you build up a natural resistance to these and other common bugs. As I found out, the flu typically puts you out of commission for a week or so. In many cases, it also puts you in the hospital (and leaves you responsible for hefty hospital bills). In extreme cases, it can kill you. Ordinary influenzas kill about 20,000 Americans a year, or about 55 people a day. Through October 3rd, the Centers for Disease Control reports 147 pediatric deaths from the flu, most attributable to the H1N1 virus. Are you willing to let your child be another victim when you can prevent it at no or little cost?

I already have scheduled my annual flu shot for next Thursday. Fortunately, my employer provides it free of charge at our convenient clinic. It makes sense for them to do so; this way I am more likely to stay productive. As soon as I can get a H1N1 flu shot without impacting those who need it more, I will get it as well.

Once upon a time, I was childless and stupid too. I trusted to luck until the flu took me out of commission for a week. When it did, I vowed if I could get a flu shot once a year, I would. Not only was the experience humbling and scary, it had a huge impact on my life. Not only did my work suffer, but many others had to pick up my slack while I was down. Not all influenzas are preventable but many are. Prevention requires mindfulness that to a virus you are no one special, just another host to breed baby viruses. If you can get the shot, be proactive and schedule it every year. Also, do common sense things like wash your hands regularly.

Of course, our precious children should not be allowed to opt out of the shot. They are supposed to be guided by loving and responsible parents. If the polls are right, at least where it comes to their children’s health, more than a third of America’s parents are being irresponsible.

Don’t let your kids or yourself be one of the statistics, dead or suffering pain needlessly when it is cheap, convenient and wholly preventable to avoid it. Get the whole family immunized. Perhaps you can do it all at the same time, so when your children become adults they will see the flu shot as an ordinary and important part of raising a healthy family.


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