US officials combat public's wariness of swine flu vaccine

With polls showing that Americans are concerned about the safety of the swine flu vaccine, government health officials are being dispatched across the US to make the case for vaccination.

Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS
A child reacts receives the H1N1 swine flu vaccine in a nasal spray at Dodge Park Elementary School Friday in Landover, Maryland. Dodge Park students are among first school-aged children in Maryland to get free H1N1 vaccinations.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has dispatched swine flu "mythbusters" across the United States to correct what it says are rumors and misconceptions about the H1N1 virus and the new swine flu vaccine reaching American clinics this week.

Their task won't be easy. Despite a US vaccination regimen that public health officials widely regard as a success, a distrust of government scientists in general and of vaccinations in particular pervades large swaths of America, according to recent polls.

The vaccine is opposed, moreover, by naturopaths and even a well-known epidemiologist, Tom Jefferson, who has deemed H1N1 "not a major threat."

"[T]here are a lot of rumors out there and we're trying to address them, that we're expecting a very good safety track record for H1N1 vaccine," said Anne Schuchat, director of the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, at a news conference Friday.

While the share of people concerned about swine flu has jumped from 38 percent in June to 52 percent now, 41 percent of respondents still say they definitely will not get the flu shot, according to a recent Harvard Opinion Research poll. A Consumer Reports poll found that two-thirds of US parents have reservations about giving the vaccine to their children.

In response, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has mounted a public relations offensive to try to ease fears about the vaccine. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius made the rounds of morning TV shows and also appeared Friday at Dodge Park Elementary School in Landover, Md., to help administer the vaccine to school kids.

One message in the $3 billion campaign to get nearly half of all Americans inoculated: "A decision not to get vaccinated isn't a decision that is risk-free, but a decision to take on a different set of risks," Glen Nowak, a CDC spokesman, told the Monitor.

CDC director Thomas Frieden at a press conference this week addressed what he considered the top three misconceptions:

•Swine flu isn't a mild illness as many people believe, he said, "but can knock you out for a day or two or three" and can, for some, be fatal.

•Fears that the vaccine is unsafe, experimental, and that corners were cut in its production are untrue, Mr. Frieden asserts. "My children will get it, and other public health and societal leaders will get it and have their families get it."

•Many Americans believe the vaccine is arriving too late to be effective. But Frieden says, "We don't know what the long flu season is going to hold."

This week, the Monitor reported that a heated debate has emerged about individuals' rights and responsibilities in deciding whether to receive the vaccine.

The debate is reflected in Facebook pages and chat rooms that are lighting up with the question, "Should I get it?"

Reports of neurological side effects among some vaccine recipients during the 1976 swine flu outbreak hardened some Americans against flu vaccines, even though health officials say those risks are minimal today.

These days, skeptics have much bigger stages, namely cable TV and the Internet, on which to air their doubts. Fox News' Glenn Beck has devoted hours this week to asking whether people should get the vaccine, and why the World Health Organization, "Big Pharma," and the government are hyping a pandemic that seems less virulent than officials had predicted.

Jennifer Edmondson of Appleton, Wis., the mother of a 13-year-old, reflects a more common concern. "The flu caused by H1N1, in general, has been found to be no more dangerous than other types of flu," she writes in an e-mail. "My reluctance is not based on any distrust of our federal government, [but] rather, on my analysis of the necessity of the shot."


Swine flu vaccine: Is it ethical to say no? Read more about the debate.


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