H1N1 Vaccine

Recently friends and family have been expressing their concerns to me, on Facebook and in person, about the H1N1 vaccine.  Is it safe?  How could it have had long-term testing?  There have been videos circulating of extremely rare but traumatic neurological side-effects that flu vaccines are known to cause.

To clarify, I do not have a medical background and can only point the reader in the direction of information from sources I trust.  For example, see the Canadian based Facebook group H1N1 Vaccine – Get The Facts. Also see the Center For Disease Control’s H1N1’s Facts and Figures.  Look at the age profile at the bottom of the CDC’s article.

First, my understanding of the swine flu vaccine is that it is made using the same process as the other seasonal flu vaccines.  The current H1N1 (swine flu) appeared after this year’s flu vaccine had gone into development.  Therefore, a second vaccine was developed just for the H1N1 virus.  This means that the H1N1 vaccine should have the same safety and efficacy profile as the seasonal flu vaccine.  There is a standard process used every year for the flu vaccines, we just happen to have two of them this year.  This also means that the concern that H1N1 vaccine has not had long-term testing is meaningless.  Flu vaccines have been available for years and they are different every year.  The safety is known.  This H1N1 vaccine seems different only because it is for a single virus and people know the name of the virus.

But is it safe?  The simple answer is that the risk of serious side-effects is much lower than the risk of the flu.  Is it 100% safe?  No, but of course nothing is.  Vehicles are not 100% safe yet people ride in them every day.  For most people, the risk of getting seriously injured in a vehicular accident is greatly outweighed by the convenience.  In the same way the risk of vaccines are much safer than the risk of the disease that they are preventing.

The trade offs of the vaccine are described in a Calgary Herald Article:

Dr. Butler-Jones [Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer] has been very, very adamant– it’s safe. It’s the one thing we can do as Canadians to protect ourselves and our families and our communities.”The risk of experiencing severe side-effects after taking the H1N1 shot is literally one in one million, compared to the 20 to 35 per cent of the population who will get sick from this pandemic flu without protection, said Butler-Jones.

“If every single Canadian is inoculated, then 30 Canadians could have the potential for a severe side-effect, compared to 10 million people sick, 100,000 people in hospital and 10,000 people dead,” he said.

10,000 people dead seems alarmingly high, but even if it is 3,000 it is still a significant risk.  If 3,000 people die and Canada’s population is 30,000,000, then the chance 0f dying is 1 in 10,000.

For some reason people expect medicine to be almost 100% safe.  It’s not, and likely can never be.  Aspirin can be deadly.  So can peanut butter to those who are sufficiently allergic.

We set a very demanding standard for medicine if we expect it to be risk free.  We are heartbroken when it fails.  The sad story of Desiree Jennings is one of the anti-vaccination videos that is circulating.

It is very hard to unbiasedly weigh the trade offs between a potentially life saving vaccination against the very rare (1 in a million)  risk of a side-effect.

For some reason we are hardwired to see an action that leads to a bad outcome as much worse than an inaction that leads to a bad outcome.

If you choose to get a vaccination and have severe side-effects you can question your actions and regret them.  If you do not get vaccinated and you get the flu that is just random chance even though statistically it was the wrong choice.  Inaction is a choice.

Think of it another way, let’s play let’s make a deal.

  • Door number one is a 1 in a million chance of permanent neurological damage
  • Door number two is a 1 in 10,000 chance of dying.

Which would you choose? It’s blindingly obvious – isn’t it?

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3 Responses to “H1N1 Vaccine”

  1. She’s been “cured”!

    According to people who know more than me, she most likely had a psychogenic movement disorder and not any adverse reaction to the influenza vaccine.

    http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2009/11/desiree_jennings_cured.php

  2. Oops.

    I found this post via a search and, now that I’ve read more of your blog, I see that you’ve already commented on this case.

    Sorry for the duplication!

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