For months the question has been whether we could gear up production of vaccine for the H1N1 flu virus — formerly swine flu — fast enough. Now that the first doses have reached some distribution centers this week, we have the answer to that question.
This answer leads to the next question that we all have to face. Should we get the vaccine?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, says that people “at increased risk of severe illness” most need the H1N1 vaccine. One of these groups includes people with diabetes.
This makes sense. Those of us who have diabetes can get very sick and may even have to go to a hospital. Our impaired immune system makes us more vulnerable to getting a bad case of the flu.
Just getting sick can raise our blood glucose level. Then, it can stop us from eating right, and that further affects our blood glucose.
In addition, most people who have diabetes are overweight. And weight itself can be part of the problem. People who have a body mass index of 40 or more — and maybe even those whose BMI is more than 30 — “may be at increased risk of hospitalization and death due to 2009 H1N1 influenza infection,” the CDC says.
Strangely, however, the age group with the highest incidence of diabetes has the lowest priority in getting a flu shot. That’s because people who are 65 and up are less likely to become ill from the H1N1 than younger persons. Nobody knows why, but my guess is that older people may have antibodies in their system from somewhat similar flu exposure years ago.
That does not mean that senior citizens should pass up the opportunity to get an H1N1 flu shot as soon as their priority comes up. “When persons aged 65 years or older acquire influenza, they are at higher risk for severe influenza-related complications,” the CDC says.
However, more people are worried about having their children get the H1N1 flu vaccine. A new poll by the Associated Press-GfK found that 38 percent of parents were unlikely to give permission for schools to vaccinate their kids. The poll found that 72 percent are worried about side effects.
Much of this concern is undoubtedly about the preservative thimerosal, a form of mercury. We all know that too much mercury is dangerous. That’s why, for example, that we shouldn’t eat fish more than twice a week.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the past eight years hasn’t licensed any new vaccine for use in children younger than six that contains more than a trace of thimerosal. With one exception — multi-dose formulations of flu vaccines.
Last year I wrote about the thimerosal controversy as it related to the regulwrotear seasonal flu vaccine. This year the Internet is loaded with even more rumors about the supposed dangers of thimerosal in general and the H1N1 vaccine in particular. I’m already getting scary emails about the supposed risks of this vaccine. As someone who appreciates the entertainment value of these “urban legends” I check them out at snopes.com, which does an outstanding job of debunking these counterproductive rumors.
Few people seem to know that thimerosal in flu vaccines is safe. The CDC, the FDA, and the National Institutes of Health agree after reviewing the published literature. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, and the American Academy of Pediatrics reviewed the published research and also found thimerosal in vaccines to be safe.
Even fewer people know that you can get flu vaccine without thimerosal. Both the regular seasonal vaccine and the H1N1 flu vaccine are available in single-dose units, which doesn’t require the use of thimerosal as a preservative. The live-attenuated version of the H1N1 vaccine, which you take through your nose, also comes in single-units and does not contain thimerosal.
Still, thimerosal-free flu vaccines may take longer to get. If they are, I will take a chance on thimerosal this year for the H1N1 vaccine.
This year for the first time we need two flu shots. Just because we get the H1N1 vaccine doesn’t mean that we can skip the regular seasonal shot. In fact, when I was hospitalized last week for a twisted small intestine, the hospital asked if I had already received it this year. When I told them that I hadn’t, they routinely gave me a shot.
My considered advice is to get the regular seasonal shot now before the flu season hits us hard. In fact, a new study indicates that the seasonal flu vaccine might give us some protection against H1N1 flu. It’s not enough to prevent H1N1, but it can reduce its severity.
One of the other key ways that the CDC recommends to avoid getting either type of flu is to wash your hands often and avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
The government agencies say little if anything about the benefits of taking large does of vitamin D. But several recent studies show that vitamin D plays an important role in the prevention of respiratory infections such as the cold and flu.
I’ve taken high does of vitamin D for at least three years and haven’t even had a cold since November 2005, and I used to get colds all the time. I’ve been taking 10,000 IU every day. But just to be careful, I upped my daily vitamin D dose to 15,000 IU at least until I can get an H1N1 shot.
We know the answer to the question of whether to get the H1N1 shot. The ball’s in your court now.
This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.