You can’t turn on the news or read the headlines without seeing information about the H1N1 virus, aka, “swine flu.” Swine flu isn’t anything new; H1N1 was first attributed to a major flu pandemic in 1918. However, it is debated among many whether the virus made its original jump from pigs to humans or vice versa. Swine flu again emerged as a threat in 1976 when a soldier at Ft. Dix died from a H1N1 variant and over 500 soldiers at the installation became ill as well. The 1976 strain appeared extremely similar to the 1918 virus, which killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide. As a result, President Gerald Ford pushed a nationwide vaccine program which kicked off October 1, 1976, and was immediately halted in December after an unusually high number of people reported a rare neurological condition called Guillain-Barré syndrome. Guillain-Barré is a painful, paralyzing neuromuscular disorder that can be fatal. It resulted in 25 deaths in 1976, and over 500 cases of Guillain-Barré were reported that were directly linked to the vaccine. In fact, the swine flu vaccine killed more people in 1976 than the disease did.
This leads me to the question, should you get vaccinated for swine flu when it becomes available this fall? A government report released August 24th suggested that a “plausible scenario” for swine flu this fall would result in 30,000 – 90,000 deaths, over 1.8 million hospitalizations, and up to 50% of the US population getting infected with swine flu. The Centers of Disease control has been quick to minimize that threat, stating that this is a “worst case scenario” and hardly a “plausible” one. By comparison, seasonal flu infections typically infect about 20% of the population and result in somewhere around 30,000 deaths annually. The big difference between seasonal flu and swine flu seems to be who is most susceptible. Swine flu seems to affect people in their 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s, while seasonal flu tends to lead to complications which typically result in most deaths in people over the age of 65. The reasons for this difference are not entirely clear, but it may be because H1N1 isn’t as prevalent in recent history, and giving people over the age of 65 a greater likelihood to have developed a partial immunity to the virus.
A lot of the reports on swine flu create a lot of alarm. Last spring when swine flu first reemerged, many schools closed when outbreaks of the virus were first detected. A recent poll suggested that over two-thirds of Americans are concerned about swine flu. With all those worst case scenarios out there, it seems that prevention is the best kind of medicine, right? Well, not so fast. I am far from being a conspiracy theorist, but after taking a deeper look at some of the risks associated with flu vaccines in general, and specifically looking at the H1N1 vaccine that will be available in October, people should be aware of the following risks associated with the shot.
- The efficacy of flu vaccines in general has been largely debated. Depending on the sources you read, the flu vaccine has an efficacy between 0 and 96%. Some well conducted studies in the 1990’s showed that flu vaccine efficacy was no better than 20-40% even if the vaccine is close to the strain of flu that is currently spreading. The problem with producing flu vaccines in general is that the flu virus is genetically unstable and mutates rapidly. In order to produce vaccines, which need to begin months before flu season, pharmaceutical companies and doctors have to guess which strain is going to be the most prevalent. The end result is that often the vaccine that goes into production isn’t similar to the virus that is spreading. A study produced in 1995 indicated that 76% of isolated influenza samples were not similar to the vaccine.
- Harmful substances are used to produce vaccines, especially swine flu vaccines. The list of potentially harmful substances that go into the production of vaccines is too long to post here; however there are a few that I would like to highlight. Swine Flu vaccines are made with formaldehyde, thimerosal, and MF-59. Formaldehyde is used for a variety of applications, most notably as a solution for preserving tissue and an embalming agent (think the liquid preserving the frogs and cats in biology lab). Formaldehyde is toxic, and it is classified as a known carcinogen by the EPA. Thimerosal is used as an antifungal and antiseptic and is also toxic. In the human body it is broken down into ethyl mercury. Although ethyl mercury doesn’t accumulate in the body the same way as methyl mercury does (found in seafood and a contaminate from industrial waste), it is still unknown what long term effects it has on the body. Thimerosal is used in many vaccines, but was banned for use in childhood vaccines EXCEPT the flu vaccine. MF-59 is an adjuvant. Adjuvants help the body develop antibodies to a foreign substance more quickly, which therefore make a vaccine more effective. The problem with MF-59 is that it contains squalene. Some doctors suggest that squalene greatly increases the risk of arthritis and other neurological problems. Others have tried to suggest that the squalene in Anthrax vaccines given to soldiers during the first Gulf War in the early 1990’s helped contribute to the symptoms that became known as Gulf War Syndrome. These connections have not been clinically proven, but there is plenty of debate out there.
- The rise of autism and the risk of developing Guillain-Barré syndrome have been attributed to the toxic substances present in vaccines. I will preface this section with the statement that the links between autism and these vaccines are not clinically proven. However, there are several doctors that have suggested a possible link after a 1998 study by British physician Andrew Wakefield. Additionally, others have suggested a link between flu vaccines and Alzheimer’s disease, but this has largely been proven a myth and contradicts studies that seem to suggest the opposite. Guillain-Barré was linked to the 1976 flu vaccine and has clinical credibility.
- Vaccines are big business. Pharmaceutical companies make a lot of money off of vaccines. For the upcoming swine flu vaccinations, the World Health Organization reported August 18th that countries in the Northern Hemisphere have ordered over 1 billion doses of vaccine. Prices are estimated at $10 per dose, which is about 6 times the production cost of the vaccine. Simple math suggests that drug makers rake in big profits from vaccines. In the past, drug makers have even sold drugs they knew were tainted. The best known case was in 1984 when Bayer discovered that Form VIII (a drug for hemophiliacs) was tainted with the live HIV virus. Even though they pulled it off market in the US, they knowingly sold it in Asia and France, killing off an entire generation of hemophiliac patients. The executives responsible ended up in prison, but it is one illustration of how the profits that drug makers stand to reap often can get in the way of information that is in the best interest of the public’s health.
The decision about whether or not to vaccinate your children or yourself from the swine flu is a personal one between you and your doctor. I would suggest that most vaccines probably outweigh the risk of contracting life threatening illnesses such as polio. However, when it comes to flu vaccine and specifically swine flu, I would exercise a bit of caution. Limited efficacy, combined with short clinical trials and a lot of questions about the long term effects of substances used in the vaccines, make H1N1 vaccines a scary proposition. As of July of this year, 70,813 cases of the swine flu have been reported, with 311 of the cases resulting in death. For statisticians out there that represents 0.43% of the cases resulting in death. That is without a vaccine and just letting the disease run its course. While one death can be viewed as too many, I am not sure that the potential risks outweigh the reward.
Image credit: LittleMan
Dave Baldwin is a businessman, musician, and divorced father of two boys. They live together in El Paso, TX.