Monday, December 5, 2011

Their Loss, Your Decision

“We weren’t overly concerned.”

Jen Lastinger’s daughter, Emily, was suffering a bout of flu. The three-and-a-half-year-old who, her mother tells us, “loved princesses and Power Rangers,” had been back and forth to the pediatrician’s office, and each time, her parents were told that things were going as expected. That Emily would “get worse before she gets better.”
Emily Lastinger's Family

One morning, not long after her pediatirican’s visit, Jennifer left Emily watching a cartoon for a few moments while she tidied up the house. When she returned the bedroom, Emily was unconscious. Hours later, her brain activity ceased. She died from influenza.

Emily would have been saved by the flu vaccine. She hadn’t received it because at the time flu vaccine was recommended for certain segments of the population who were considered high-risk, like the elderly. Emily was not in the recommended group (thankfully, the recommendation has changed, thanks in part to the Lastinger family’s advocacy. These days everyone over the age of six months is recommended to get the vaccine).

It is Emily’s legacy, and proof that her death was not in vain, that writers and bloggers across the country are telling her story this week, National Influenza Vaccination Week. Since learning of her story, it is Emily’s face that I see every year around this time, when it comes time to vaccinate my children and myself against flu. She’s the reason why I am among the first in my circle of friends to have my children immunized.

In the last few years, many of my acquaintances have taken to denigrating the flu vaccine—either because they don’t think it works or because they don’t think the flu “is that bad.” Still others believe that “good nutrition” and “healthy eating” can keep the flu at bay. And there is, of course, that segment of parents who can’t abide by any vaccine because of misinformation about the way vaccines work, and leave their children, and the community, at grave risk.

So let’s talk today about some of the myths and facts about the flu vaccine. First, some facts. Flu causes 200,000 hospitalizations each year in the United States. That’s like having the entire city of Modesto, California, in the hospital over the course of a single flu season. Flu can cause up to 32,000 deaths in a season. The flu vaccine is one of the safest “medications” in human history (more on that later). But numbers can glaze the eyes. Even though every single one of those 200,000 hospitalizations caused 200,000 families grief, anxiety, and money, it's still hard to relate to on an individual level, which is understandable given the nature of statistics. For the human side of flu, please visit Families Fighting Flu.

On to the myths.

Myth: the flu vaccine is ineffective

Chelsea Oliver (Craft)
I’ve seen reports on various anti-vax websites or “natural news” websites that the flu vaccine just “doesn’t work”—they take as their proof the fact that the flu vaccine changes each year. (Although a person wouldn’t pass high school biology by making such a claim, it’s out there, and it has traction. )The truth is that it is a triumph of public health that a vaccine for flu can be produced at all. It’s a fickle, mutable virus, that changes from season to season. As a result, the vaccine has to be recreated each year in order to anticipate which influenza strains will be active during the coming winter season. Now you’ll often hear this trotted out as a reason not to get the flu vaccine—that it is anticipatory. For this logic to work a person would have to believe that 0% protection against a potentially deadly illness is equal to or better 50% protection. Let me get even more stark: this same logic suggests that 50% protection is not worth the drive/the trouble/the shot. I’m not willing to gamble like this with my children’s lives. I think in any other risk-reward analysis of harm to our children, every parent would go with 50% protection instead of 0% protection. Flu is a potentially deadly disease. We need to remember to see it that way.

Myth: the flu vaccine contains mercury

Well, first off, this is not true. Some multi-vial doses of flu vaccine contain thimerosal, but the vast majority of the vaccine—including those given at your pediatrician’s office—are thimerosal-free. The FluMist nasal spray is always thimerosal-free. That being said, I won’t bother getting into whether thimerosal in the levels present in any vaccines it was or is in (this multi-dose flu vaccine is the only childhood vaccine that contains the preservative) is worrisome (it’s not). As an aside, one of my favorite pro-vax moms likes to go into her clinic and ask for the "thimerosal-containing" flu shot, which they don't have, just to make a point. 

Myth: the flu isn’t that bad

Tell anyone who says this to you to read Jen Lastinger’s story. Or the Chandler Family, whose four-year-old son, Chance, died. The Crafts, who lost their beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter Chelsea.  The Marottas, whose five-year-old son, Joseph, died from flu. The Lins. The Smiths. The McGowans. The Steins. The list at Families Fighting Flu goes on. And each one of these families is a family like yours. The loss was unimaginable. It is a slap in the face to any parent who has lost a child to flu to hear that disease described as “not that bad” or not worth vaccinating against. To me, as a parent, it’s these stories—stories these parents are willing to live through again and again as they advocate for flu awareness and vaccination—that get me in my car and to the doctor’s office for my shot and my children’s shots. If we are willing to entertain the decision whether or not to vaccinate our children against flu, we also must be willing to learn about these children. Otherwise we come by a decision not to vaccinate dishonestly.

Myth: the flu vaccine isn’t safe/its safety hasn’t been proven/it needs more testing

Given in the millions upon millions of doses around the world, the flu vaccine is among the most successful and safe vaccines ever devised. Dr. William Shafner, Chair of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt and President of National Foundation of Infectious Diseases tell us that the CDC, along with its sister public health organizations across the world, monitor the flu vaccine constantly. And although the FDA licenses a new variant of the vaccine every year, each vaccine comes to us with the basic structure of the vaccine that has that extraordinarily safe record. It honestly doesn't get any safer than this vaccine.

Myth: You can get the flu from the shot

This one’s easy. Nope. Not possible. There’s a chance you may feel achy and sneezy, but that’s not flu. It’s the immune response kicking in. It means your existing immune system wasn't up to snuff and it is now kicking into high gear. It means it is working.

At the end of the day, the decision comes down to whether you think your life is worth the flu shot. I know Emily Lastinger's was. I know Chelsea Oliver (Craft)'s was. I know Chance Chandler's was. I know every single child who has died from influenza's life was worth getting the flu vaccine, and it's a tragedy that in so many of these cases, circumstances prevented them from getting the vaccine. Whether it was outdated immunization guidelines, a snowstorm, a lack of vaccine at the clinic, or misunderstanding about the fact that you need to be vaccinated each year, the bottom line is that chances are these children would be here today if they had been vaccinated. And that's why their families fight, and will continue to fight every day of their lives, to make sure you never have to suffer like they did. It's your decision.

A special note to pregnant women: it is critical that you get your flu vaccine this season. You are as vulnerable to serious complications from flu as are the elderly. More, if you immunize, you pass on some of that protection to your baby, who will come into this world absolutely helpless against the flu. And with more and more people choosing not to protect themselves (and the community) against flu, you need to do all you can to keep that baby safe.

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