Tuesday, September 8, 2009


Mid August, I went to a local Safeway in Alexandria, VA to purchase some leaf lettuce that was on sale. I was surprised to see the parking lot adorned with large white signs, "Flu Shot Here Today," with a few in the windows promoting the availability of the shingles shot as well. As I walked past the pharmacy to the produce section, I saw no takers. But it got me thinking...Back to school, back to flu; yes, kids can be germy, but this was tantamount to starting Christmas sales in July, a la K-Mart and Sears, and another blatant attempt to create an early bird market.
Up front, I will admit that I haven't had a flu shot in many years. After being diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 1995, I decided not to risk an adverse reaction to the virus preparation, or worse, to the mercury or aluminum used in it as a preservative. Instead, I rely on a routine gamma globulin shot to restore to my weakened immune system what I am lacking, and for the most part, that has worked for me.
Within days of that shopping trip, the federal government came out with its scare projections regarding the predicted upcoming H1N1 outbreak. 90,000 deaths, 2 million hospitalized, with pregnant women having a four times greater risk of complications leading to the latter. The swine flu vaccine won't be available until October, just in time for Halloween, but as someone whose onset of chronic illness was iatrogenic, I'm already spooked. Its production sounds way too rushed and "just off experimental" to me, and administering it to the general public in the fall will in reality just be a continuation of the clinical trials. That sounds scarily similar to the long list of drugs whose approval was fast tracked only to be later recalled, or perhaps the Gulf War Syndrome that some of our vets attribute to their pre-deployment inoculations. No thanks, but I am writing this out of concern for those who may say "yes."
It appears that there will be no qualms about giving the H1N1 and seasonal flu shots together, at the same visit, which to me spells a possible internal stress overload of our more sensitive populations. In addition, pregnant women are being put at the top of the list of those being encouraged to get the shot, almost shamed as "bad mothers" if they do not. My particular concern is for their unborn children; what will we be doing to them? And right up there on the priority list are young children, 6 months to 4 years, another group with less than developed immune systems already hard hit by what many think is, and for which there is substantial anecdotal correlation for, overinoculation. What will we be doing to them?
Back in the 1950s, I was allowed to get Mumps, Measles, German Measles and Chicken Pox, and aside from annoyance of the latter on the bottoms of my feet, survived just fine. For me, it was a kindergarten right of passage, and bestowed immunity how and when nature intended. My sister, four years younger, caught everything I brought home from school, and had a much more difficult time dealing with my "presents;" my brother, who did not contract Chicken Pox until he was nine years old, got a "harder case" as well and was left with facial scaring. So there is something to be said for timing in exposure to any virus, which I suspect would also extend to vaccine preparations. The question then becomes with respect to the unborn and the very young, is this the optimal time to inoculate them for the swine flu when we are claiming they are at an inappropriate age to actually catch it? And what about individual constitutional differences?
It's no accident older adults are being ignored in this latest "war"; most of them have built up their immune systems naturally and gradually over a lifetime and can fight whatever "bug" comes their way. But by vaccinating against a pandemic that might not even come to pass, we may deprive our younger population of being able to do the same and take a greater risk than "the flu" with those who will be the future of our country, rushing into something that could be akin to the deformities in the 1960s? Remember the thalidomide babies, disfigured on the outside? As a result of the implementation of the CDC recommendations, could thimerosal babies, autistic, or worse, be next? The H1N1 "fear factor" is just one element to weigh in taking that chance.
Yes, the swine flu appears scary. But so, historically, did much else that this country in retrospect has overreacted to. We seem to be allergic to "balance;" either we do next to nothing in preparation (Katrina) or engage in action overkill (Saddam, after 9/11, another emotion driven war). There are many ways to deal with the prospects besides tampering with our human capital. First and foremost, the big difference today from the times of other epidemics is that we have the technology to make work, and even school, temporarily more telecommute friendly. It's about time we change our predominate model from "command and control" anyway. This could be the impetus we need. Send people home before the flu strikes, rather than asking them to stay there once they're sick. Think of it as a second phase expansion - beyond shopping online. We have at least two months to conjure up creative ways to deal with the possibility besides the traditional - a flu shot and enriching the drug industry - and should have learned something from anticipating the avian pandemic non-event two years ago. Getting back to my trip to Safeway for leaf lettuce, what about promoting the maximization of overall national health - lifestyle changes, diet and exercise - to reduce susceptibility and address the existing obesity epidemic? Or launching a campaign to instruct on practicing common sense hygiene? Sorry, Baby Boomers, but the answer is not always in pharmaceuticals.
My fear is that the panic and alarm driving the flu shot campaign will propel us to something worse. And while I am not an advocate of disease as population control, we can minimize deaths with other, less invasive techniques, and need to look at the citizenry we will be left with if we vaccinate pregnant woman and the very young. When Ted Kennedy died recently, the almost immediate question was "who will replace him?" Not just in his Massachusetts Senate seat, but in stature in Congress. I'd like to broaden the query. Who will replace our current leaders, and be guiding this country in the future? He was the poster child for "it takes forever to grow up." Don't we at least owe it to our unborn and youth to honor their bodies as temples and give them, and US, the same fighting chance?
One week later, I returned to the same Safeway. The same signs were still up, and probably will be on my next trip, and my next trip, as well. Not to be outdone, on September 1st, CVS began offering seasonal flu shots at Minute Clinics, free to the unemployed. Does that include the unborn and the very young? I hope not. The following day, the Governor of Maryland pronounced getting inoculated "a patriotic duty," in what I suspect is a politician's capitalization on the sentiment of the upcoming anniversary of 9/11. I hope not. Again.

Karen Ann DeLuca

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