Saturday, October 24, 2009

Saturday Science - Flu Season Edition


You can view the informative article which accompanied the video and listen to an interview on the topic of the current flu outbreak here

I've been around my town and visited various businesses over these last couple of weeks. I recall a recent visit to a computer shop where the manager told me half his work force was home with the flu and he was only just recovering. He was a young fellow had never imagined he could be as sick as he had just been, healthy one moment and bedridden just a couple of hours later. My husband stood next to me while this flu-recoverer related his ordeal. Paul has asthma and we are uninsured. I insisted he get his flu shot as soon as they became available, and he did. (Unfortunately the H1N1 shot is not available here yet, so he had to settle for the seasonal flu shot. I did not get a shot, because Paul is also unemployed, and money is tight. We chose him, because he's at higher risk of death from flu.) Yesterday I stood in line at a convenience store. The woman in line ahead of me (a very nice lady, by the way) was turned in my direction when her chest began to rumble. She coughed chunkily, quickly bringing up her elbow to cover her mouth. Despite her good intentions, however, her diaphragm was faster than her left arm. Some of her cough sped over the top of her elbow. Oh well. These things have a way of getting away from us. Germs are not as easy to contain as we'd like to think.

No doubt you've heard we're facing an uncommon sort of flu season this year. On top of our usual variations we've got a newly discovered strain of H1N1 floating around, one which our immune systems are unfamiliar with and is giving us quite a beating. Already the death toll in our country alone has topped 1,000, nearly 100 of them children. At that same time all this is transpiring there are also anecdotal reports surfacing via YouTube of victims of rare disorders which they feel are linked to recent vaccines. I've seen them. One is related to the HPV vaccine, another to seasonal flu, and there are a few more. I've also seen various controversial articles claiming a causal relationship between certain immunizations and autism. And there are concerns remaining from the seventies - Guillain-Barre syndrome, linked, albeit with some uncertainty, to the 1976 swine flu vaccine. All of these reports are troubling, to say the least. I'm familiar with them and understand them but am not deterred by them. I will explain why. (I hope that those of you who do not agree will accept my point of view as just that and refrain from argument.)

It's been a long time since we've lived in a country where mass epidemics routinely endangered the lives of children and adults alike. I have an elderly friend who is crippled from a childhood bout with polio. She is one of the fortunate ones. She survived. Not many of us have ever encountered a man like Alexander Woollcott, who was rendered, in essence, a eunuch due to a case of the mumpsSmallpox, that dreaded plague, has been all but eradicated. Likely none of us have met a survivor of the great flu pandemic of 1918, from which the worldwide death toll has been estimated between 50 and 100 million. The absence of many dreaded diseases in our populace today can be attributed to the mercy of God, of course, and secondarily in many cases to successful vaccination campaigns.

I think the current epidemic of suspicion surrounding vaccination programs is in part attributable, ironically, to the great success of vaccination. We who have not been touched by a deadly pandemic, or the loss of siblings or children to common childhood diseases tend to see the risk as a distant threat, one far removed, one that could never touch us. We've been a very healthy people for a very long time. I think the fear also stems from a distrust of government, and science. (Our attitude as Christians toward government is a topic for a different day, and one I will not get into directly at the moment.) I understand the concern about science, in as much as so much of it seems to be aimed at dis-proving or, at the very least, ignoring or disregarding any evidence of a Creator. But, I'd like to set that aside for the moment as well, or at least to look at it from a different angle. These scientists, in particular the ones for whom disease control and prevention is a life work, if they do not believe in God, have no hope other than what they can accomplish in this world. This world is all they have and where all their hope lies. It is where their legacy will remain. It is in their best interests and those of their species, to which they've devoted themselves, to find cures for these illnesses. It is also entirely unfair to assume that atheists do not love mankind and desire to ease the suffering they see around them. In some ways I think they are even more invested than we Christians are. This IS their world. They do not have another. It is in their nature to love it and want to preserve it for themselves and their posterity. (All that said, it is not fair either to assume all of these scientists are atheists, with no concern for God.)

From the many accounts I've read over the years about the desperate struggle of epidemiologists and others in health care professions I've gained a great deal of respect for them. They race against time and any number of scientific limitations, their progress often impeded by governmental foot-dragging and budgetary constraints, to identify causes of illness and to find a cure knowing that all the while they are searching, people are dying. These are people who, generally speaking, are not going to become rich or famous as a result of any of their hard work. They are in it to save lives.

As for the drug manufacturers, I have no great respect for these companies as they tend to be primarily profit driven behemoths. As I understand it, the number of them willing to produce vaccines is dwindling because it is an expensive process and those who do develop them are expected, required actually, to make them safe and affordable for the masses. So it's bad news/good news on that end. The good news is they are required to make them safe and affordable. The bad news is they are not required to make them, and so many do not. This leads to the potential for insufficient supplies. My point here is, however, vaccines are not big profit makers.

So what is my point in all this? My hope is that you will remove unjustified suspicion from the scales when weighing your decisions regarding vaccinations. Weigh the risk of of death or disability and the likelihood of contracting the illness opposite the risk posed by the vaccination itself. If it is likely not to be a serious illness, and you have the ability to quarantine yourself, you may want to skip the vaccine and stick with hand-washing and elbow-coughing. If it poses a real danger to you or some you may come in contact with, or if you can't afford to miss a day at work, then get vaccinated.

Here are a few more articles and resources which may help you as you weigh these matters:

Here is a link to the Vaccine Safety page of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And here is one for the World Health Organization's page which deals specifically with the current strain of H1N1 (swine flu virus).

Slate Magazine has an article written from the perspective of the parent of an immune compromised child on the importance of "herd immunity" to the most vulnerable among us.

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