As the flu season approaches we are hearing more and more about the need to prepare for pandemic flu. There is also a great deal of discussion and myth surrounding the new H1N1 flu vaccine. Many people point to the outbreak in 1976 and say that the vaccine killed more people than the disease and therefore we shouldn’t get this new vaccine. So I thought I would walk through historical events and dispel myths to the best of my ability
First it is important to understand the process involved in the production of a Flu vaccine. The World Health Organization and Center for Disease Control constantly monitor what flu strains are circulating around the globe. After years of records and understanding of flu strains traveling the CDC and the WHO are very good at predicting the dominate strains, which they then submit to the Food and Drug Administration to decide what three strains should be included in the vaccine. The FDA submits these strains to Manufactures whose scientists begin to manufacture the vaccine.
Many have also argued against this current H1N1 and even seasonal flu vaccines due to the dangers seen in the 1976 flu epidemic. The 1976 flu outbreak, widely remembered as a debacle, was very different from the outbreak today. Fearing that H1N1 mirrored the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, the US launched a massive campaign to inoculate everyone against the strain. The campaign was stopped within 10 weeks however, because of reports of people developing Guillain-Barre syndrome, a paralyzing nerve disease that appeared to be caused by the vaccine.
During the ’76 outbreak 40 million Americans were vaccinated. One person died as a result of the disease; however more than 30 people died from Guillain-Barre syndrome. Public outcry at these results was high. What is not remembered about the incident however is the intensive study the medical community has performed on this subject since that time. The event is studied heavily by public health and medical officials in an effort to continuously improve vaccinations, as can be seen in TIME or in a CDC article about the ’76 pandemic.
Rather than responding massively at the first sign of the influenza outbreak, the CDC has been monitoring the current pandemic event closely. Since 1976 we have developed yearly vaccines for the flu and have greatly increased the safety of the vaccine. (So saying that you won’t get a flu vaccine because of the mistakes in 1976 is a bit like saying you are not going to the barber, for fear that they will bleed you as was a common practice up till a hundred years ago.)
All in all it is important to keep informed on the current pandemic and seasonal flu. The FDA continues to update information on the H1N1 vaccine and they will be testing it along the way. In the meantime however, the best way to prevent the spread of the flu is to cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough, to wash your hands, and to stay away from people if you are sick. You should also get vaccinated if you can, especially if you are in a high risk group which includes anyone under the age of 25. It is also important to note that more than 200,000 people a year are hospitalized for the seasonal flu, and about 36,000 people die every year from flu like symptoms, so we should be practicing these behaviors every day not just for the pandemic flu. Click here for our Flu checklist to make sure you are doing everything possible to stay healthy.
To find a local flu clinic and for more information about the current pandemic and seasonal flu visit columbuspandemicflu.com.