We’ve all been hearing about the worst case scenarios regarding the H1N1 flu, otherwise known as the swine flu. We don’t know how bad H1N1 will be this fall, but it looks like it could be several times worse than the usual seasonal flu (which kills about 36,000 people a year in the US), but with this one children, college- and grad school-age adults, and pregnant women are especially vulnerable. Boys who catch H1N1 in particular seem to get a lot sicker than the regular flu, and children are the largest group of flu sufferers who end up needing hospitalization.
This year may be the most important year in recent history to get your flu shots. It’s important to note that this year we’ll see a regular flu shot as well as one for H1N1, which should be available this October. The regular flu shot may help some, by keeping people healthier and stronger overall, and reducing fevers that will keep people out of school or work, but won’t be a major help for the current strain for H1N1.
The data on the newest H1N1 vaccine look very good so far – but we don’t yet know the whole story. So far the H1N1 vaccine has not resulted in significant side effects, but I expect we’ll see some side effects emerge when larger populations are immunized. After all, if we gave enough people bananas or spinach we would see a few serious side effects and allergic reactions. I expect the benefits of the vaccine to still outweigh the risks. People will not get the flu from the H1N1 vaccine: unlike some other vaccines, this one is not a live virus; it’s bits and pieces that prompt to the body to later recognize and attack the flu virus. Some people will almost certainly have reactions to the vaccine, but it may be those same individuals who would be overwhelmed by the virus itself.
At this point, based on all that we know so far, I plan on getting both flu vaccines for myself and for my four children. For all shots, I prefer the versions with no added mercury as a preservative (the ones that come in single dose vials). – but this is a smaller issue than the risks from the flu itself. I’ll continue to keep an open mind as more data become available, and our understanding of both the risks and the benefits becomes clearer.
Infants under 6 months should not receive flu shots, but other adults in their home should. We should all be taking preventative steps to stop the spread of the virus, including…
- Keeping babies away from people with fevers.
- Keeping kids and adults with fevers home from school and work until the fever has been gone 24 hours.
- Using hand sanitizers.
- Using good sense when it comes to spending time in public places, especially if you’re not feeling good.
Although we as pediatricians are concerned about H1N1, there’s no reason to panic. The CDC has a plan for dealing with outbreaks, and the plan seems sound to me. Keep an eye on news reports from reputable sources to help guide you on the best way your family can stay healthy. I’ll post more here on DrGreene.com as soon as any major developments occur. We should know much more about what the fall will hold in the next 4 weeks or so.