It's November, which means we're on the leading edge of winter. As ever, it's a season associated with coughs, colds and influenza. When the H1N1 (swine flu) strain was first reported in Mexico, we all sat up and took notice of the death toll. It really did look like a nasty virus was coming our way. A few months later and opinions seem to have polarized as to whether swine flu is the monster it first appeared or whether there is no more to fear than regular seasonal flu. But let's not play down seasonal flu which kills up to 50,000 Americans every year. However, nearly all of these are chronically sick and/or elderly. So far, the pattern with swine flu looks different.
It's fair to say that people are suffering a little from confused messages. At first the media seemed to hype the dangers, then, when it became clear that people were not dropping like flies, the catastrophic stories all but dried up overnight. Even so, the fact that the pandemic has yet to fully develop has been enough to stoke to flames of discontent, particularly over the issue of vaccination. Developing a vaccine has been something of a speedy affair and this has fuelled speculation as to whether it is safe. All we know so far is that a few thousand people have been vaccinated against swine flu and so far no serious side effects have been reported.
What should a parent be considering in reaching a decision over whether their child should be vaccinated? It's a question that has a number of possible answers. For example, I was interested in a comment to a medical doctor's blog on the Psychology Today website. The commentator pointed out that children, as a group, contribute disproportionately to cases of flu in other people, including death in older adults. The commentator went on to say that, "while the expected benefit of a vaccine to a child might be slight, others benefit considerably from children not shedding viruses everywhere". In short, the point being made was that vaccinating children or adults is a kind and socially responsible act.
Then, as luck would have it, my October 31 edition of New Scientist arrives and sure enough there's an extensive article about swine flu by Deborah MacKenzie which throws into doubt the 'slight benefit to children' comment. The article immediately criticizes the "complacency-mongering" amongst people who have come to regard swine flu as mild. According to MacKenzie, even official advice is failing to keep up with the latest findings.
Of possible interest to parents is the disclosure that unlike previous flu pandemics:
"this one is killing mainly young people, not the very elderly as flu normally does. By early October, 76 children and adolescents in the US had already died of swine flu".
MacKenzie also points out that while the symptoms of swine flu may include a fever they frequently do not. Nausea, stomach cramps and diarrhea are common in nearly half of all cases that never develop a fever. Despite this, the official line has not changed i.e. if you don't have fever you don't have flu. In the severe form of swine flu a person can be fever free yet experience shortness of breath, chest pains or blue lips.
Polls suggest that nearly half the parents in the US say they will refuse to vaccinate their kids. This is almost inevitably due to a combination of messages that suggest swine flu isn't as bad as people first feared and that the vaccine is largely untested and could have dangerous side effects. Anxiety about the issue is perfectly understandable. For example, the 1976 round of flu vaccines to nearly 48 million Americans resulted in 532 developing the paralyzing condition known as Guillan-Barré syndrome. Most recovered, but the message it left was that vaccines might do harm. So do they? Well, the message from the scientific and medical communities is a resounding no, but it is a question of weighing up the benefits against the costs.
Swine flu does carry significant risks. The winter has only just started and the full effects will not be known for some months, plus there is still the danger of the virus mutating. So how worried should we be? Professor Peter Openshaw, a flu expert from Imperial College, London, says that it's early days but that evidence to date suggests that one in every three people who become infected will have symptoms so mild they may not even realize they've had swine flu. The remainder will have more obvious symptoms but 98 per cent will recover without the need for hospital treatment.
I can only speak for myself when it comes to decision making but in weighing up the pro's and con's I will most certainly be standing in the queue if and when the opportunity for the swine flu jab comes my way. As parents, my wife and I had no qualms about having our daughter vaccinated when she was a child, and from what we understand about swine flu we'd certainly do it again.
Published On: November 02, 2009