By Dr. Mike Dostrow
“A wise man should consider that health is the greatest of human blessings, and learn by his own thought, to derive benefit from his illness.” -Hippocrates
The recent onslaught of press releases regarding influenza A, H1N1 and vaccinations prompted a response … an appeal to common sense. People, Americans in particular, appear to be more swayed by sensationalism and misinformation than by scientific fact and logic. This article will attempt to elucidate the reasonable and valid body of information which exists regarding this year’s two prominent strains of influenza and the vaccinations developed to combat them.
Every year around Halloween, people become aware of an evil spirit which cannot be seen or conjoured but is as ubiquitous as the candy consumed in large quanities by our sugar-amped children.
Influenza, or “Flu,” is an acute respiratory illness caused by a family of viruses known as Orthomyxoviradae. It is characterized by a sudden onset of fever, chills, headache and cough. It is seasonal and multiple strains exist, changing from year to year. The usual type is influenza A, but this year we are experiencing a predominance of another type of influenza known as H1N1( a subset of type A ). We will refrain from the use of the term “swine flu” in order to protect innocent pigs.
Unlike regular seasonal flu, H1N1 tends to affect more young, healthy individuals. In L.A County alone more than 100 infants, children and teenagers have died from complications of H1N1. These were previously healthy people with normal, intact immune systems. The regular seasonal flu tends to create complications and death in people with underlying immune compromise and other diseases. Every year thousands of infants, elderly and people with lung problems die from the flu.
What is troubling to medical professionals is that this years H1N1 flu is killing people with no previous problems. Although the vast majority of people with H1N1 will have mild to moderate illness and recover, it is very disconcerning that it can cause hospitalization and even death in normal individuals. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) predicts that up to 35% of Americans could be potentially affected by H1N1 and the number of persons hospitalized in California could be as high as 168,000. Of equal concern, however, is the lack of available vaccine as well as the misconceptions surrounding it. H1N1 vaccine production has fallen far short of the 150 million doses which were supposed to be currently available. To date the U.S. has received approximately 30 million doses.
Of course, our fickle, misinformed population has swung from distrust and disdain regarding the safety of H1N1 vaccine to panic over its current lack of availability which reminds me of an appropriate quote by Mark Twain: “Be careful about reading health books; you may die of a misprint.”
With regards to the safety of all vaccinations including H1N1, there is no medical intervention safer than vaccines. The controversies surrounding vaccines and immunizations are shrouded in ignorance and sensationalism. This year’s H1N1 vaccine was produced exactly the way all flu vaccines have been in the past. The incidence of documented complications and death from vaccines can be counted on one hand. By comparison, antiinflammatories (i.e. Advil, Naprosyn, Aspirin) caused more than 100,000 hospitalizations and almost 17,000 deaths last year. Antibiotics, falsely regarded as a panacea, caused 200,000 hospitalizations and countless deaths from unanticipated reactions yet patients still regularly request them for the most mild of maladies. Thus, our trust of these medications and our paranoia regarding vaccines and immunizations defies reason.
When was the last time you heard of someone suffering from polio (poliomyelitis)? Thanks to Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, vaccine pioneers, that debilitating disease, which affected former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt., is virtually nonexistent in our society.
In 1966, the World Health Organization (WHO) embarked upon a campaign to eradicate smallpox with mass vaccination. At that time, two million deaths per year were attributed to smallpox. Presently, thanks to WHO’s efforts, this is another disease we no longer worry about. Immunizations and vaccinations could be considered one of the most important scientific advances in the history of mankind. Devastating diseases like diptheria, typhoid, tetanus and meningicoccol meningitis, to name but a few, have been all but eliminated in modern society. Unfortunately, our healthy fear of these horrible diseases has been replaced by an unreasonable, irrational fear of their cures. Although vaccinations and immunizations are not 100% safe, nothing is, and the millions of deaths they prevent are worth the negligible risk. The CDC states that “all safety data regarding H1N1 vaccines is very reassuring” and “serious side effects follwing vaccination would be rare.” When you consider the risk of H1N1 compared to the possible rare side effects of vaccination, it seems like a “no brainer” to me. Perhaps more data regarding the production and mechanism of action of vaccines would assist in a more informed decision.
At least one billion doses of flu vaccine are given worldwide each year with a remarkable record of safety. The World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Food and Drug Administration require “a rigorous and extensive development program in the laboratory using animal studies and human clinical trials to determine their safety and effectiveness.” This is carried out by “highly trained scientists and clinicians” who themselves have children and families who will be vaccinated. After approval, these medicines are “continuosly monitored for adverse events and side effects.”
Each year, infectious disease experts determine the predominant strain of flu and isolate that particular virus. After reproducing the virus in the lab, they kill it using formaldehyde, a substance found in the human body which is non-toxic in small amounts. Then the viral proteins are inoculated (injected) into chicken embryos, this is why people who are allergic to eggs should not recieve flu vaccines. It is the protein component of the killed virus that our immune system recognizes and records. When we’re exposed to the live virus, rather than becoming ill, our body mounts a swift and efficient response, destroying it before sickness occurs.
Both Novartis and Sanofipasteur use thimerosal, a mercury derivative, as a preservative. This is a subject of great concern to people. The amount of mercury received in one dose is not even detectable. In fact when you eat sushi or a fast food fish sandwich, you’re ingesting many more times the amount than exists in any vaccine. Other methods of preserving vaccines are currently being researched.
Life is a series of decisions regarding risk and benefit. Is the risk of a car accident worth getting behind the wheel? Is the risk of ingesting microscopic amounts of arsenic or uranium worth the benefit of safeguarding drinking water? Whatever your choices, they should be based on sound reasoning. Don’t rely on the National Enquirer or Readers Digest for your decisions regarding the health, safety and welfare of your loved ones. Instead, find credible, reliable and scientific sources to make these extremely important choices. Visit CDC.com, flu.gov or call your local public health expert at 760.914.0496 to make well informed, sound decisions regarding H1N1 and vaccinations.
“False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes salutary pleasure proving their falseness.” -Charles Darwin, “The Descent of Man,” 1871
County addresses H1N1
As you may know or suspected by now, it’s official … the pandemic flu known as H1N1 (aka “Swine Flu”) is here and still causing a stir across the country and around the world, not to mention locally, according to Mono Public Health Officer Dr. Rick Johnson.
“There have been several more [local] hospitalizations, but fortunately no deaths at this time,” Johnson said.
In terms of the much-talked about vaccine, Johnson said the Mono County Health Department recently received 1,100 injection-type doses, and will distribute them throughout the hospital, prioritizing already identified high-risk groups (such as seniors, those in contact with children, and pregnant women) and first-responders who come in close contact with contagious community members. (Vons isn’t part of the County’s allocation, with any H1N1 vaccine available through its store coming through the Safeway corporate headquarters in New Jersey.)
During its Board meeting this past Tuesday, Mono County Supervisors voted to authorize a continuation of its previously declared local health emergency, which allows the County to take more preemptive measures to immunize and prepare first responders and other front-line agencies to deal with H1N1 at the “boots on the ground” level.
The Board plans to hold a special meeting on Nov. 24 to consider and potentially authorize another declaration of a local health emergency, which would take effect once the current one expires.
The plan now is to distribute the initial supply of vaccine to targeted groups, including paramedics and law enforcement, on or before Thanksgiving, with enough supply to cover all comers sometime in December.
“As we get more vaccine, we will expand the target groups to include all children and young adults through age 24, all healthcare workers, and adults with chronic medical conditions up to age 64 years. Eventually, enough vaccine will be available for anyone who wishes to receive it,” said Johnson.
He added that the Health Department is aware of “the anger and speculation circulating in the media” about people who are not at high-risk getting access to vaccine before those who really need it. “We can assure you that this has not been the case locally, and our best efforts are being made to distribute the available vaccine in a fair and just manner,” he stated.
In addition to the usual measures of washing your hands and covering your mouth when you cough, Johnson still thinks one of the best ways to prevent the spread of H1N1 is to simply stay home if you are sick, and keep sick children out of school and daycare.
For more information, contact the health department in your area: Mono County 760.924.1830 or Inyo County 760.873.7868.