News & Events

Citizen, heal thyself: Get the swine flu vaccine

By Claudia Meininger Gold  |  November 16, 2009

AS A pediatrician, I received my swine flu vaccine without a moment’s hesitation. I wanted to be available to treat the onslaught of illness, and to be able to go comfortably into a room with a coughing, miserable child knowing that I was not putting myself or my family at risk. I was astounded, therefore, to read recently, in a popular newsletter for pediatricians, a column by a pediatrician stating that he would not recommend the vaccine to his patients. His arguments were that the illness was relatively mild and the vaccine might not be safe.

In my practice, there are many parents who choose not to immunize their children. As a mother myself, I sometimes wonder if part of the motivation for this choice is to combat the helpless, scary part of loving someone so much. It can become overwhelming to contemplate everything that can possibly go wrong. Perhaps parents refuse vaccines because it is something they can control, a way in which they can “protect’’ their child. In the case of swine flu, or H1N1, this action is, in my opinion, misguided.

There are many different fears associated with vaccines, but the specific fear around H1N1 has its origin in a 1976 outbreak of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disease that damages nerve cells, after mass vaccination against a swine flu. The website of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention addresses this issue:

“Several studies have been done to evaluate if other flu vaccines since 1976 were associated with GBS. Only one of the studies showed an association. That study suggested that one person out of 1 million vaccinated persons may be at risk of GBS associated with the vaccine.’’

The current method for making the H1N1 vaccine is the same as that for the seasonal flu vaccine. The only difference is that seasonal flu vaccine is prepared in anticipation of flu season, while manufacturing of this one was begun while the pandemic was in its initial stages. High-risk groups, such as the elderly and young children, receive the seasonal flu vaccine without a second thought.

It is true that for the majority of people H1N1 is a mild illness, generally causing two to four days of feeling lousy. But the virus is highly contagious. The sheer numbers are staggering. A school in Chicago closed last month when 800 of its 2,200 students were sick. With any flu there are people who will have complications and die. As the number of cases continues to climb, statistics are not in our favor.

For high-risk groups, such as pregnant women, talk of “mild illness’’ is meaningless. Stories are multiplying of the devastating losses of both baby and mother. In our small town there are young adults who were previously healthy now on respirators in intensive care units.

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Douglas Shenson proposed the use of polling places for vaccination. This led me to think of vaccination as a responsibility of being a citizen, analogous to voting. Just as one vote does not determine the outcome of an election, one person immunized does not halt the spread of illness. Yet voting is a civic duty. Similarly, vaccination, while benefiting the individual, serves to protect the population as a whole. Short of shutting down the country, mass immunization is the only way to stop the spread of this virus.

In addition, I feel that as a physician, it is my responsibility to uphold the recommendations of the CDC. If every individual citizen took it upon himself or herself to decide what was best for the country, there would be chaos.

Washing hands, covering our mouths when we cough, and staying home when we are sick are all ways to contribute to the common good. As responsible citizens, when the opportunity arises, and in keeping with CDC guidelines, we should all do our part and immunize ourselves and our children.

Dr. Claudia Meininger Gold, a pediatrician, practices in Great Barrington.