What's scarier: swine flu or the vaccine to prevent it?

Plenty of parents are terrified to vaccinate their children these days, fearing side effects that are worse than what the vaccine was intended to prevent in the first place. Such concerns are magnified in the case of H1N1, aka the swine flu. After all, as noted in Joel Warner's blog this past April, the feds tried to vaccinate the entire U.S. population in advance of a swine-flu outbreak circa 1976 -- but an epidemic never materialized, and 25 people died from likely vaccine complications.

With the first doses of the latest vaccine due to reach Colorado this week (they're designated for healthcare professionals), Margaret Huffman, a public health nurse with the Colorado Department of Health's immunization program, is hearing worries like these on a regular basis. She concedes that some people see the vaccine as having been hurried to the market before its safety could be adequately tested. But "it's not as rushed as people may perceive," she says.

"When H1N1 first emerged last spring, the vaccine makers started right away to isolate those seed cultures they could use to grow a vaccine," Huffman goes on. "That's the same vaccination process we've used for seasonal influenza vaccines for fifteen or twenty years -- and we've never had an issue with safety in all that time. Nothing was rushed or hurried. The process takes the same time as it usually does."

Not that the timing was ideal. Once it became clear than an H1N1 vaccine would be necessary, she says the vaccine for the seasonal flu was already so far along that "it couldn't be tweaked to add this one." As such, the vaccines are separate.

According to Huffman, the procedure described above was developed in part because of problems like the one involving the mid-'70s vaccine. "The car you drive today is safer than the one you drove in 1976," she points out, "and the whole scientific process has improved, too. Everything has improved to make sure those products are meeting FDA regulations and other licensure regulations."

Such reassurances are especially important, in Huffman's view, because decisions made by people at the front of the line for vaccination (children under age six, the elderly, people with pre-existing medical conditions and caretakers for any of the above) impact others. "We're not only protecting ourselves, but other more vulnerable populations," she says. For us to remain helpful to anyone who's immuno-compromised, it's important that we remain healthy."

At this point, Huffman doesn't believe vaccine paranoia has stampeded out of control. From what she knows about the calls coming in to CoHELP, the main H1N1 info line (877-462-2911), anxiety about the vaccine being deadly isn't the main concern. The chart topper by her count is the question of whether the seasonal flu vaccine and its H1N1 counterpart can be taken at the same time. The answer: They can if both are entering the system via injection. If, however, the H1N1 vaccine is being taken using a nasal spray -- and that's what Colorado will be getting initially -- the two can't be taken simultaneously.

Vaccine supply should be improving as time goes on. "We'll get doses this week and larger amounts the week after that, and larger amounts after that, so we can ultimately get to the widest population possible," she says -- and with reports yesterday of a 25-year-old man without previous medical issues dying from H1N1, the urgency is only increasing. Huffman hopes growing fears about the swine-flu vaccine don't follow suit.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts