I had my annual physical last week and my nurse practioner mentioned that they had an abundance of the H1N1 flu vaccine. Because I have asthma, I almost always get the regular, seasonal flu vaccine. In addition, flu (probably both H1N1 and the seasonal flu) is running rampant on our campus right now. So I decided that I would get the H1N1 vaccine.
There has been a lot of controversy about the H1N1 vaccine. Most of the discussion of risks has been focused on Guillian-Barre Syndrme (GBS) which is a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks itself, causing weakness and potential paralysis. No one really knows what triggers GBS but occasionally someone will get it after having had a vaccination. By “occasionally”, I mean one in one million. So for every million vaccinations given, one person will develop GBS. Two or three percent of people who develop GBS will die and about twenty percent never recover. There is no known cure for GBS and so this potential risk is causing lots of people to refuse vaccination for themselves and their children.
Meanwhile, the risk of death from H1N1 is one in one thousand. Humans are particularly bad at measuring statistical risks, especially when faced with media hype concerning events that are out of the norm. Although every person has to decide for herself whether to get vaccinated, it seems to me that the risk of contracting GBS is very very small and should not be the reason to avoid the vaccination.
Another reason that people are giving for not getting vaccinated is that somehow they believe that this vaccination has been “rushed through” the safety checking phase of its development. The reasoning goes like this. Drugs take years to develop and test for their safety. The H1N1 vaccine didn’t take years to develop since we only learned about the appearance of H1N1 last year. Therefore, the safety testing must have been skipped. Therefore, the vaccine is likely to be unsafe. The problem with this logic is that it ignores the fact that the H1N1 vaccine was developed and tested using the same procedures that are used for the seasonal flu each year. Each year, scientists anticipate the mutation of the flu virus and manipulate the previous year’s vaccine to address this mutation. This is exactly what was done to develop the H1N1 vaccine. The risks of the seasonal flu vaccine are not zero but they are very very small. I would take this to mean that the safety risks of the H1N1 vaccine are also very very small. In fact, the chance of dying from the vaccine is much smaller than the chance of dying from the flu.
The final major reason people give for not getting the H1N1 vaccine is that it contains thimerosal, a form of mercury that is used to prevent bacterial infection of the vaccine. Mercury is toxic to humans and so, the reasoning goes, this preservative is toxic to humans. Thimerosal is less toxic than other forms of mercury. Extensive studies have shown that there is no difference in the occurrence of problems when someone receives a vaccine with thimerosal than when they receive a version of the vaccine without thimerosal. This may still not convince people that the vaccine is safe so you should know that there are three forms of the vaccine and only one contains thimerosal. The nasal spray version of the vaccine does not contain thimerosal. Neither does the version of the vaccine that comes in single dose vials. Only the version of the vaccine that comes in multi-dose vials contains this protection against bacterial infection. So if you’re worried about thimerosal, ask for a version of the vaccine that doesn’t contain it.
As I said, I got the H1N1 vaccine last week. I have had absolutely no complications from the shot, not even a sore arm. And I’m protected against H1N1. In my mind, that’s not a bad deal.