Flu Fear

This morning’s newspaper ads were quite enlightening.  Apparently, it isn’t enough to be a germophobe who washes their hands repeatedly and practically drinks the hand sanitizers that are popping up all over in stores and libraries.  No, evidently I am now supposed to purchase a Flu & Germ Protection supply kit for each person in my family.  I kid you not. Check out this week’s Target ad on page 6. The Right Response Kit includes flu and germ protection supplies and is clearly labeled “Buy One for Each Person.”  It includes vinyl gloves, hand sanitizer and a face mask.  Yup, one for each person.  That means I should be buying 6 kits at $9.99 to make sure my entire household is covered for the upcoming flu season. 

Or, I could just get the flu shot, right? 

I hate how the flu shot is being pushed this year, especially the swine flu shot.  One headline that caught my eye recently read like this: “1 in 3 pregnant women die from H1N1”  Wow!  Those are impressive (and scary) statistics!  If I were a pregnant woman I’d run right out and get that shot. I don’t want to die!  That is a knee-jerk reaction.  None of us wants our children to be put in harm’s way. No one wants to get a deadly flu virus. Headlines like this have one purpose, and one purpose only- to get the public scared enough to get vaccinated.  That one in three statistic?  I read the rest of the article, but not everyone would.  According to the article, of the 700 confirmed cases of swine flu in pregnant women (and remember, they had to be pretty sick to go to the doctor to have it confirmed. Most people do NOT go to the doctor with their flu symptoms) 28 died.  Now, I’m not a math whiz, but I’m pretty sure 28 out of 700 is not 1 in 3.  So, where did that 1 in 3 headline come from?  Well, of that original 700 confirmed cases of swine flu in pregnant women, 84 were hospitalized, and of those hospitalized, 28 died.  Well, when I took statistics in college, this was called a skewed statistic. First of all, what about the 700 who had the flu but didn’t go to the doctor?  Or the 800?  Or the 1200?  We don’t know how many pregnant women had the flu and didn’t go to the doctor to have it confirmed, so right away we are dealing with a statistical number of pregnant women who are very, very ill in the first place.  Of those 700 very, very ill women, 84 were so sick they ended up being admitted to the hospital.  Of those very, very ill pregnant women, 28 died. A tragedy, yes, but hardly the 1 in 3 that the headline implied.

Now, consider this.  When my husband completed cancer treatment in the Fall of 2006 he was strongly advised to have the flu shot, more so than the usual push for vaccination.  We seriously considered it.  The last thing either of us wanted was for him to get sick when his immune system was too weak to fight an illness.  I even e-mailed a wonderful doctor who had written a book about immunizations to ask his opinion.   His reply was that we needed to consider the fact that if my husband’s immune system was weakened, then he was also more susceptible to the side effects of the shot.  Good point.  We hesitated, and delayed making a decision.  Then at a November appointment, where David was assured that his immune system had fully repaired itself  (despite the fatigue he was still experiencing) he was again urged to get the flu shot.  “Because of your cancer treatment,” one of the nurses said. 

“But you just got through telling me my immune system was at my pre-cancer state, that it has repaired itself,” he pointed out.

That stumped them.

There is no question that if David had gotten the flu back then when he still felt such fatigue, it would have wiped him out.  But neither one of us was convinced that the shot would have prevented that year’s flu, or that he wouldn’t have some side effects from the shot itself, and there can be serious side effects, side effects you don’t hear about in the media. The side effects might not be immediate, but instead, long-term. 

It isn’t that I am totally against the flu shot. I think the benefits to the flu shot can outweigh the risks, for certain people and at certain times. What I do object to is the media pushing these immunizations to the extent that they feed off people’s fear and cloud their judgement. I object to anyone blithely assuming these shots are totally safe and effective and rushing out to get them as soon as the media frenzy begins.  Instead, I would like to see each and every person make the judgement call for themselves, researching both the shot and the disease.  It can be tough to sort the wheat from the chafe when it comes to informational websites.  The first thing anyone should do when they are looking for medical information is to check the sponsors of the website.  If the sponsor is a pharmaceutical company, then you can be pretty sure that information will be biased towards immunization.  After all, pharma is a big business. If the website is funded by a natural healing doctor who is also selling his  natural healing supplies on the side, also be wary. Instead, search for books and websites that combine both the scientific studies and the common sense.  Be aware of what is included in these shots before you drag your children to the pediatrician’s office.  Thimerosol?  Whether or not it is actually linked to autism, it certainly isn’t good for you. Is there a mercury-free shot offered? Weigh the pros and the cons for your child, for you, for your husband who fought cancer in 2006.  Are you exposed to a lot of illness? Do you work in the medical field?  Do your children attend preschool?  These are all considerations you need to take into account when making your decision.  My husband works at a nursing home, where the flu runs rampant, despite the fact that most residents get the flu shot.  This fact had us leaning towards the flu shot for awhile. Then we considered that despite the fact that he’d been working at a nursing home for over 10 years he’d only contracted the flu once (and a child had it first). We decided that since he worked maintenance, his chances at getting the flu from a resident were much smaller than if he were a nurse or an aide. So, instead, he decided to avoid the rooms of the ill residents and wash his hands more frequently.  Interesting (and perhaps just luck) that the one serious illness in our household during his cancer treatment (strep throat) was never passed to him.

So, while I’m not going to run to Target to get my flu and germ supply kit, I will likely remain the germophobe I already am, and avoid social situations this winter if I am unsure about the health of those present. I will continue to over-use hand sanitizers and wash my hands obsessively, and perhaps even go so far as to spray Lysol on the toys at the library, but I am not going to get the flu shot or wear a mask unless I am fully convinced that it is the best way to protect myself and my children.

My advice to everyone else?  Do your homework. And make sure that if you do get the shot, you get it because you believe it is the right choice for you, and not because someone pressured you into it. Fear should not be your deciding factor.

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