Perhaps it is an inevitable result of the current climate in this country, but even the notion of vaccines can be politicized and infused with paranoia these days.
In recent years, many have come to believe that the childhood measles, mumps and rubella vaccine can cause autism — even though the "research" that sparked such beliefs has been shown to be fraudulent. Others have pointed to vaccines of various types as some sort of nefarious government plot. So it probably should come as no surprise that, with the flu season bearing down, recommendations for people to get vaccinated are met with skepticism in some quarters.
Across Washington, flu activity already has passed epidemic thresholds, according to an article in Sunday's Columbian by reporter Marissa Harshman. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a total of 25 states have reported widespread flu activity, including Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. In Clark County, as of last week, flu activity was elevated but not yet epidemic.
"The flu season is basically here in Clark County," said Dr. Alan Melnick, health officer/administrator for Clark County Public Health. "This looks like it could very well be a severe flu season."
Of most concern is a strain of H1N1, known as "Swine Flu" when it first appeared in humans during a 2009 pandemic, and medical officials report that it is hitting young adults and middle-aged adults particularly hard. "It's the same virus that we saw in 2009 that caused the pandemic," Dr. Michael Jhung of the CDC told CNN. "It has established itself very nicely in the human population. We've seen it every season since 2009 in people."
No method of prevention is fail-safe, but the most assured way to avoid contracting the flu is to receive a vaccine -- a notion that flies in the face of a growing anti-vaccine movement in this country. While the decision of whether or not to receive a vaccine is a personal one for adults and/or parents, if somebody becomes ill, they put those around them at risk. There's nothing personal about influenza.
For example, according to the CDC, the "Spanish Flu" pandemic of 1918-19 infected about one-third of the world's population and killed about 50 million people. That pandemic hit hard in Washington. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, on Sept. 17, 1918, recruits from Philadelphia arrived at the Puget Sound Naval Yard, and 11 of them were ill with the flu. By Sept. 20, Camp Lewis had 173 cases of influenza. By the end of October, officials required everybody across the state to wear a surgical mask in an attempt to stem the spread of the virus.
Modern medicine and governmental tracking of diseases likely will prevent such a severe and widespread outbreak these days. But the importance of vaccines is not to be trifled with. Many statistics are available to support this position, and there is anecdotal evidence, as well. A column by Amy Parker, posted this week at Slate.com, details her childhood with fanatically health-conscious parents in the 1970s, a childhood in which vaccines were eschewed: "As healthy as my lifestyle seemed, I contracted measles, mumps, rubella, a type of viral meningitis, scarlatina, whooping cough, yearly tonsillitis, and chickenpox."
Or consider the case of polio, once a worldwide scourge now largely eliminated thanks to vaccines.
Anecdotal evidence is not adequate reasoning for receiving a vaccine or declining to receive one. Research on both sides of the argument should be studied, and patients should consult their doctors. In the end, however, the individual and societal benefits of receiving a vaccine far outweigh the risks and drawbacks.