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Paul Kiesel
Paul Kiesel
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Fearing a Flu Vaccine?

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From The New York Times:

When I tell nonmedical friends that our clinic is vaccinating children against the H1N1 flu virus, here is what they say.

With about half, it is something like: “Oh, my God, our doctor doesn’t have it! Can you get me a dose?” And with the other half, it is something like, “Oh, my God, that brand-new vaccine — do you really think it’s safe?”

There is a peculiar duality in the collective cultural mind just now, a kind of pandemic doublethink. Other doctors I know are all eagerly having their own children immunized. Many are answering frantic calls from people desperate for the vaccine. But at the same time, we are all coming up against parents who are determined to refuse that same vaccine.

Wondering what history might have to say about this incongruous state of affairs, I called David M. Oshinsky, a professor of history at the University of Texas who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Polio: An American Story” (Oxford, 2005). Dr. Oshinsky compared the current vaccination campaign with two previous situations.

In 1947, a man newly arrived in New York City from Mexico died of smallpox. The authorities “lined up the entire city” and vaccinated everyone, even those who had already been vaccinated, Dr. Oshinsky said. “The entire city was revaccinated,” he added, “and there was no real resistance. People had a sense of risk versus reward and listened to public health officials.”

Then there were the polio vaccine trials of 1954, in which parents volunteered more than a million children to receive either an experimental vaccine or a placebo. And while they trusted the medical profession much more than parents do now, there was another factor, Dr. Oshinsky said: “They also had lived through virulent epidemics. That to me is probably the biggest issue of all. You’re dealing with parents who’ve never seen a smallpox epidemic, a polio epidemic.”

Few doctors now practicing have ever seen a single case of smallpox, much less an epidemic (thanks to vaccination). But when pediatricians look at today’s strain of H1N1, we tend to be good and scared.

Serious cases of this flu are relatively rare but far from unheard of; more than 100 children have died of H1N1. The deaths seem to occur disproportionately in children and pregnant women.

So we give the H1N1 vaccine to children whose parents are almost tearfully afraid of the virus, and we try to win over those parents who are just as tearfully afraid of the vaccine. To them, we explain over and over that in fact this is not a brand-new vaccine — it is made with the same techniques as the seasonal influenza vaccine. Yes, it has been tested. Yes, it’s safe. Yes, it’s effective.

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