In our opinion: Don't fear the flu shot

Published: Sunday, Oct. 11 2009 12:22 a.m. MDT

Residents wait in line for H1N1 vaccines, the first to arrive in Utah, at the Weber-Morgan Health Department in Ogden.

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This is the age of conspiracy theories and distrust of authority. Even something as seemingly self-evident as the need to be inoculated against a swine-flu pandemic leads many — a majority according to some opinion polls — to say they and their children will opt out.

Skepticism toward power is healthy in any society. But when many people who enjoy the fruits of more than a century of medical breakthroughs, including vaccinations against deadly diseases, decide to distrust the medical establishment, that smacks of an element of the irrational.

One poll by the Associated Press and GfK Roper found more than one-third of U.S. parents don't want to vaccinate their children. A poll by the Harvard School of Public Health found only 30 percent said they definitely would take the vaccine, while only about half said they would allow their children to have it.

There is legitimate reason for skepticism. Those of a certain age will remember the 1976 swine-flu scare, which prompted the Ford administration to launch a nationwide inoculation program. That vaccine, unfortunately, killed some people and injured others with Guillain-Barre syndrome, an illness that causes paralysis. The flu pandemic, meanwhile, never materialized.

But that doesn't justify cynicism or distrust in this case. Thirty-three years have passed, and vaccines have improved. No flu vaccine since has led to such side effects. While this vaccine was hurried into production, it was produced at the same facilities and by the same process that produces seasonal flu shots year after year. So far, no adverse side effects have been found. The World Health Organization told The Associated Press that 39,000 Chinese have received the shot so far, and only four reported minor side effects such as headaches or muscle cramps. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control is carefully monitoring any new reports of side effects.

The government's program is purely voluntary, although local schools may begin offering shots and sending home permission slips for parents to consider. But no inoculation program will be successful if only a small percentage of the population takes advantage of it. The reluctance is especially troubling because pregnant women and people between ages 6 and 24 are particularly at risk.

Utah already has experienced this swine-flu pandemic. Many young people became sick during the summer. The good news is the flu apparently did not mutate into something more deadly for the fall, as many had feared. Most cases have been mild, but a small percentage have required hospitalization, and some have died.

Clearly, there is no reason to panic. But just as clearly, there is no reason to reject a vaccination because of fears about big government or suspicions of the medical establishment.

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