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Health officials working against H1N1 vaccine myths as fall flu season kicks off
H1N1 is the celebrity of viruses.
From the time of the most recent emergence in North America in April of this year, its evolution has been played out on the front pages and Internet chat rooms across the country. There have been name changes, rumors and gossip, tragedy, public reaction, even scandal.
And like the celebrity gossip which captivates so many Americans, much of the conjecture has been based on misinformation and promoted by those with the least reliable knowledge.
Those claiming that the 2009 outbreak of H1N1, known earlier as swine flu, is no different from every flu that does the rounds each season are in some ways correct.
Each year regular influenza kills many more people than H1N1 did, or is likely to do, in 2009.
But one key difference is the kind of people most at risk — pregnant women, children, young people with other health issues.
With health agencies this week receiving limited supplies of the H1N1 vaccine, some health officials are concerned that many residents are being frightened away from getting the shot by a campaign of fear and misinformation.
The vaccine is being accused of many things, from causing harmful side effects to being the product of a government conspiracy to implant citizens with tracking devices.
In recent months, rumors have circulated claiming that the H1N1 vaccine isn’t safe — that it contains levels of mercury that promote autism.
The source of this fear was a now discredited study that suggested a link between Thimerosal, a preservative containing ethyl mercury, and autism in children.
While most of the H1N1 vaccine supplies do contain Thimerosal (there are a limited number of Thimerosal-free shots available, mostly for pregnant women), more recent studies have found that infants could safely receive eight times as much mercury as the H1N1 vaccine contains.
Large sections of the population continue to believe that this preservative, or something else in the vaccine, can lead to autism, despite no evidence from the most rigorous scientific studies.
Dr. Kristin Graham is an obstetrics and gynecology (ob-gyn) physician and chairperson of the ob-gyn department at Overlake Medical Center.
She said she held no doubts as to the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.
“I typically see between 25 to 45 pregnant women every day, and I talk to each and every one of them about the vaccine,” Graham said. “Once they have the information, once they understand that the H1N1 vaccine is produced in exactly the same way as the regular seasonal flu vaccine, they’re not worried.”
The absence of this crucial piece of information from the writings of anti-vaccine conspirators is building an opposition to the vaccine based on discredited, if any, science.
“There have been millions of women vaccinated over the last 45 years, and the last 5 or 6 years more regularly,” Graham said.
Matias Valenzuela of the King County Department of Public Health said many of the concerns about the vaccine were based on reports of a connection between the 1976 swine flu vaccine and Guillian-Barre syndrome (GBS), a rare disorder in which a person’s own immune system damages nerve cells.
Because of an increase in the number of reports of GBS following 1976 influenza vaccinations in some states, the immunization program was suspended.
Epidemiologic evidence found that the estimated attributable risk of vaccine-related GBS in the adult population was just under one case per 100,000 vaccinations.
Valenzuela stressed that the H1N1 vaccine is made using exactly the same processes as the seasonal flu shot.
“In fact, the H1N1 strain would have been included in the regular seasonal flu shot, had it happened just a month or so earlier,” he said. “But that vaccine had already been made. The only reason [H1N1] requires its own shot is because of the timing.”
Another of the myths currently spurring anti-vaccine hysteria is that it contains an adjuvant, squalene, a chemical that occurs naturally in the human body and in many animals and fish.
An adjuvant is something added to a vaccine to stimulate the immune system and increase the response to a vaccine. This often allows a limited amount of vaccine to treat more patients.
To date, squalene has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use as an adjuvant.
However, the World Heath Organization notes that squalene has been present in over 22 million flu vaccines given in Europe since 1997, with no reported adverse reactions.
Both the WHO and the U.S. Department of Defense have concluded that squalene is completely safe.
Regardless, none of the H1N1 vaccines currently distributed by the U.S. government contain adjuvants.
So, how important is it to get vaccinated for H1N1?
“Well, for folks in the priority groups, it’s very important,” Valenzuela said. “For healthy individuals, for them it becomes an unpleasant illness. Not a good thing to go through, but not necessarily a big deal.”
People in the priority groups are urged to contact their health providers. As for everyone else, it is a matter of waiting on more supplies to arrive. There have been some delays in the production of the vaccination, a common occurrence due to the biological complexity of the process.
The CDC has confirmed that “laboratory tests on blood samples indicate that older people likely have some pre-existing immunity to the 2009 H1N1 flu virus.”
People age 65 and older are the least likely to be infected with 2009 H1N1 flu, but, if they become infected, are more likely to develop serious complications from their illness.
People eligible for the H1N1 vaccine include:
• Pregnant women
• Caregivers for
children younger than 6 months of age
• Health care and emergency medical services personnel
• All people from 6 months through 24 years of age
• Persons aged 25 through 64 years who have health conditions associated with higher risk of medical complications from influenza.