The Minister of Health has promised H1N1 vaccines will be available in T&T by next month. But at home and abroad the debate rages over the safety of and need for these controversial vaccines. As Glenda Collens, a parent, put it in response to a question thrown out on Facebook, "The idea of shooting myself up with an experimental drug that has not really been given enough time to find out the side effects is giving me pause."
The vaccine is especially recommended for people at high risk of contracting the virus commonly known as swine flu. Children are a high-risk group, as are healthcare workers, pregnant women, people over age 65, people with reduced immune systems and people with underlying medical conditions, including diabetes and asthma. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said on its Web site, "CDC... believes that the benefits of vaccination with the 2009 H1N1 influenza vaccine will far outweigh the risks."
What are the risks?
The H1N1 vaccine comes in a nasal spray and an injection. The injection is manufactured with the live virus that has been made unable to reproduce; the nasal spray, from the virus that has been killed. The vaccine will cause the body to make antibodies to the disease without actually contracting its most serious form. Some but not all people who receive the vaccine experience a runny nose, fever, pain at the site of the injection, headache or nausea. A growing number of dissenters argue that the vaccine was rushed through development–many vaccines take years to make, while the swine flu shot was made in response to a virus that reared its head only months ago. They argue it hasn't been properly or thoroughly tested, and that a preservative ingredient that is optionally added to the injected shot has been linked with cancer.
In response to the question, "Anybody got the H1N1 vaccine yet?" one Facebooker, Wayne O'Brady, responded: "The lack of information as to what this 'vaccine' is composed of and its long-term side effects is quite troubling to me. The public good cannot be served by blindly administering such drugs without proper research." Another respondent, Gillian Goddard, said, "Absolutely no way! Have you been following the recent vaccines and what they are doing to people–the Hep B and the HPV? No way." Hep B refers to hepatitis type B; controversial studies of the Hep B vaccine have linked it to the incidence of multiple sclerosis. HPV is short for Humanicla papillomavirus, which causes genital warts and cervical cancer; the safety of the vaccine against HPV has been questioned after women reported developing Guillain-Barr� Syndrome (GBS) and blood clots, or died after getting the shot.
The same type of controversy has dogged the swine flu shot, exacerbated by the problems with a previous swine flu shot given in 1976 in the US. Naturalnews.com, an Internet source for news on alternative or ecological issues, quotes anti-vaccine activist Jim Turner as saying, "[In 1976] they were intending to inoculate 200 million people. We stopped them... and somewhere between 40 and 50 million people were vaccinated. What ultimately brought it down is that a substantial number of people got 'French Polio' (GBS), a paralysis that goes... through the body, and if it goes far enough you die." The CDC and others dismiss these fears as irrational. Facebook respondent Petal Maharaj Hwang lives in New York City and has allowed her son to be immunised against H1N1 with the nasal spray version of the vaccine. "Der had his first round on Saturday. Just a nose spray in each nostril. Took less than a minute and he's fine. I asked Der how he felt when the nurse administered it and he said, 'It felt liquidy.'"
She has inoculated him against the seasonal flu before and believes the benefit of immunising him against swine flu outweighs any risk. She's not alone. The Associated Press reports, "Dr Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says she's surprised by all the misinformation going around about the new vaccine. She says a good safety record from past vaccines bodes well for the swine flu vaccine now becoming available. Schuchat says vaccines remain the best way to protect children and adults from both (seasonal and swine) flu." And though some would argue it's a matter of personal choice, vaccine skipping could have global repercussions. Consider the resurgence of the disease pertussis (whooping cough). In the US it was reported at a rate of 1,000 cases a year in 1976, but over time crept back up to 26,000 cases in 2004, writes Amy Wallace in her story An Epidemic of Fear, in Wired magazine.
She said the rise is linked to a drop in vaccination levels. "The concept of herd immunity is key here: It holds that, in diseases passed from person to person, it is more difficult to maintain a chain of infection when large numbers of a population are immune." The bottom line is that when those 250,000 vaccines get to T&T, parents and other high-risk groups will have a big choice to make, one which could have an impact on all of us.