What to Do When H1N1 Swine Flu Hits Your Town

As supply lags, parents face long waits for vaccines.

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I no longer need to wonder what it will be like when H1N1 swine flu hits my town. About 10 percent of the kids at our neighborhood elementary school are home sick, and a friend just E-mailed me that her 5-year-old is home, terribly sick with swine flu. This was not a mild illness. The poor girl ran a fever of 105.5, and the fever didn't respond to medication. She's better today, thank goodness. But I share this to make the point that H1N1 can cause serious illness in healthy kids. And the number of children falling sick has risen steeply in the past few weeks. So has the number who end up in the hospital.

No child should have to suffer unnecessarily. I know this girl's mom tried hard to get an H1N1 vaccine for her daughter, but supplies are scarce around Washington, where we live. So that girl suffered, while my daughter, who got vaccinated for H1N1 last week, should be fairly well protected by now, even though she hasn't had the recommended second dose.

Worried that the flu vaccine is more dangerous than H1N1 flu? So far, the evidence overwhelmingly says that H1N1 poses a greater risk. Here are the facts:

  • At least 95 children have died so far from H1N1 flu in the United States. The percentage of children dying from H1H1 compared to adults is much higher than with regular seasonal flu. This virus attacks the young and the healthy, and severe cases are very difficult to treat.
    • Flu shots have a terrific track record for vaccine safety, and the H1N1 vaccine is made the same way as seasonal flu vaccine. Millions of people have already been vaccinated for H1N1, and there have been reports of only minor side effects.
      • The H1N1 vaccine does not contain squalene or other adjuvants, which are sometimes used in vaccines to boost their effectiveness.
        • You can request H1N1 vaccine without thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative. There is no evidence that thimerosal poses a health threat, but people who are worried about it need to know they have a choice.
        • The federal government has messed up distribution of H1N1 vaccine, promising we'd have millions of doses by now but delivering far fewer. (Just about 300,000 doses have been shipped to Maryland, where I live. Here's a link to CDC's report on H1N1 vaccine supply.) The parent listservs and school E-mail lists in my town are crammed with parents looking for a health clinic or pediatrician's office with vaccine. So far, finding some vaccine takes determination and luck. It sounds like more clinics are screening patients, giving doses first to pregnant women and high-risk children with underlying health problems. (I wish the county H1N1 flu vaccine clinic we attended last week had done that, even though my daughter and I would have missed out.) The big fear among public-health doctors is that the H1N1 pandemic will spike before they can get the vaccine out to people. I hope that won't happen. No child should have to suffer, or risk death, when there's a vaccine to protect them.

          I just read a terrific article on why smart parents worry about vaccine safety: "An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All" in Wired magazine. It doesn't belittle parents for worrying but lays out the evidence: Vaccines are safe, and parents who don't have their children vaccinated endanger the health not just of their own children but of us all. It's a must-read, even for parents like me who are already on the vaccine bus.