Whether to Get the H1N1 Vaccine

Does anyone else think this is a problem?

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street Blog

Mary Kate wrote last week about the mystifying trend of people debating whether or not to get the swine flu vaccine. Now Pew has some startling new poll results that add numbers to the anecdotal evidence. According to Pew (h/t pollster.com), Americans are evenly split on getting the H1N1 vaccine, with 47 percent saying they would get it and 47 percent saying they would take a pass on it. The reasons given are a classic mix of hubris and misinformation.

According to Pew's release, the most often stated reason (given by 35 percent of those who would skip the vaccine) is that it is "too risky/new/Not tested." This conjures familiar scenes from disaster/outbreak/zombie movies where scientists argue whether an experimental vaccine has had sufficient testing to deploy in the face of impending disaster. (Here's a plot spoiler: If the argument is taking place in the movie's final act, the serum is safe; if it's taking place in the first 15 minutes, civilization as we know it is about to end.)

But as New Yorker health reporter Michael Specter writes:

Vaccines do cause side effects, and, in rare instances, the side effects can be serious. In particular, people who are already ill with another infection should avoid vaccines. But the odds that a flu vaccine would cause more harm than the illness itself are practically zero.


And, though this H1N1 virus is novel, the vaccine is not. It was made and tested in exactly the same way that flu vaccines are always made and tested. Had this strain of flu emerged just a few months earlier, there would not have been any need for two vaccines this year; 2009 H1N1 would simply have been included as one of the components in the annual vaccine.

Then there were the 23 percent of vaccine-avoiding respondents who claim that they don't get the flu, don't get shots or are just plain healthy. (Note: One doesn't get immunized because one is sick, one gets immunized because one is healthy—and wishes to remain that way.) Another 16 percent said that they don't believe in vaccines or that flu shots makes them sick.

Overall, 64 percent of respondents (both vaccine-takers and vaccine-avoiders now) said that they are very (18 percent) or somewhat (47 percent) confident in the government's ability to deal with the swine flu. Apparently some segment of those folks are unaware that the government's plan for dealing with the flu involves... people getting immunized.

Updated Nov. 3, 2009: I turned a civic duty double play this morning, getting an H1N1 shot (as the father of a child under six months, I am eligible in Alexandria, Va.) and voting. I can only hope that at least one of these actions will have the desired effect...