A Public Health Stranger in the Land of Medical Care
Monday, November 2, 2009
I cannot recount the number of times in the past few weeks friends, relatives, students, and strangers have asked me whether they should get the H1N1 vaccine.
Some are concerned about the side effects or wonder whether the vaccine has been tested. Parents are worried for their young children. They are concerned about the claims of links between vaccines and autism even if they know that there has never been a credible study demonstrating it. Some of my students say that the flu sucks, but it isn’t bad enough to get a vaccine. They ask: Is it effective? Will the vaccine make me sick?
Let me be clear: I am neither a physician nor a scientist. On the other hand, many don’t seem to trust physicians or scientists who claim the benefits of the vaccine with near unanimity even while some admit that we really will not know how effective the vaccine is until H1N1 has run its course. So when people ask for vaccine advice (or any medical advice for that matter), I hesitate to tell them what I think. I can only tell them what I would do.
I would vaccinate. And I will vaccinate after they cover all those who are most at risk. Why, you might ask. There are two major reasons for vaccinating. One is self-interest. Who wants to be sick? Second, I don’t want to infect anyone else.
Most of us don’t think of the second reason, especially in the U.S.A. In many parts of Asia, for example, the culture of community responsibility is embedded (admittedly, it is also mandated in some places). Living in Singapore in 2003, residents would wear masks if they had symptoms to prevent the spread of infection. And that was BEFORE the SARS epidemic.
Luckily, I am a generally healthy 50+ year old. Thus, I am low on the priority list for the H1N1 vaccine. But when I am called, I will be vaccinated. I hate being sick, but I also don’t want to infect pregnant women, young children, or anyone else who might be at higher risk than I.
For anyone who is wavering, think of it as giving a gift to those around you who will NOT be infected because you vaccinated.