To vaccinate or not to vaccinate

My mom called me (while I was at work) about a week ago, frantically imploring me to get the swine flu vaccination. I told her that I hadn’t planned to; I never get any sort of flu vaccination and, incidentally, I never get sick. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I had the flu. Sure, I’ve had flu-like symptoms (vomiting, headache, body aches, and lethargy), but these were self-inflicted from a night of drinking just a bit too much past “the line.” I get colds once or twice a year and they sometimes affect my respiratory system, but usually nothing to keep me from going to work or aborting my usual exercise routine (I’ve often ridden my bike with a nasty cold).

So that’s why, with my general healthiness in mind, early on in this swine flu panic, I had pretty much determined that the illness was the typical media hype and I wasn’t going to bother to buy into it. It seems every year there’s a new strain of something everyone’s afraid is going to become the new, great plague and I’ve got better things to worry about than the end of the world. Apocalyptic fears plagued my childhood with the threat of nuclear war; I certainly don’t need one more thing to panic about. Especially in my second life of widowhood where Death seems always to be stalking me around every corner.

My mom’s not usually the alarmist sort. Yeah, she can be somewhat overprotective of  her children, but she’s not one to easily buy into hype. Or so I would think, anyway. After I got off the phone with her, I was a little shaken. I had already been thinking a lot about cancer–and, of course, worrying occasionally that I might have a tumor growing inside of me that I’m completely unaware of–since a former coworker’s husband had recently died of this disease as well as a few people from my church who I only knew marginally. But the Big C has been on my mind as a potential unseen threat. Swine flu really hadn’t been on my radar at all. Just another flu season. I’m the complete opposite of a germophobe.

It took a few days for me to come back to my senses. I read a few articles against the vaccine (some containing a zealous fanaticism bordering on quacky) and some articles for it. I listened to various takes on the “epidemic” on NPR. I took in opinions of those around me and those of radio celebrities I respect (such as Dr. Joy Browne, the radio psychologist I worship). I then went back to my original conclusion that it was all hype, that I didn’t need to get the shot at all.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I should do. A little fearful voice in the back of my head squeaks, “But what if you don’t and you do die? Game over! Game over!” It’s the same voice that questioned whether the world was really going to end on January 1, 2000 or that still wonders if something bad’s going to happen on December 21, 2012 when the Mayan calendar ends. I’m not sure that voice is rational or reasonable.

Here’s what I don’t believe:

  • I don’t believe that the vaccine–or any vaccine–causes autism.
  • I don’t believe the vaccine is intentionally or unintentionally harmful. Taking it is not going to make you die; this is the quacky hype that feeds on a medically ignorant public.
  • I don’t believe the vaccine will make you have the flu. It’s a dead version of the virus. Biology 101, people: your body learns what the virus is and is able to build an immunity to it.
  • I don’t believe that we really accurately understand which strange/mutation the virus will take on.

The only reason I don’t bother with the normal course of flu shots is because of the last bullet point, actually–the doctors who design these flu vaccines are only guessing what strain will be out in the next year. Maybe they generally guess pretty well, but getting the flu vaccination is never a guarantee that you won’t get the flu. I always figure that I’d rather take the gamble than take the time out of my day to go do something I find really uncomfortable. And I’m just talking about going to the doctor in general before we even get to the needles. I have not gotten a cholesterol test in years because I’d rather not have blood drawn. When it comes to doctors, excepting my OBGYN, I am of the philosophy that I don’t go and see them until something’s wrong or feels wrong (and only after I’ve worked myself into a panic about it).

I haven’t bothered with the swine flu shot  for the same reasons listed above including this last caveat: I am outright and insufferably stubborn. Looking at this media craze, and how panicky people are reacting, I have the complete knee-jerk reaction to rebel against the mainstream. To not give into the hype and avoid the minions waiting for the shots in the long lines at the health clinics. To prove at the end of this “epidemic” that I was right, there was no need to be afraid.

But do I really want to play this game with my life? What if the hype is right? It’s so hard to tell fact from fiction in age of instant, round-the-world communication. I’ve always said, Joe Blow’s horse dies on a farm in the middle of Montana and the world knows before Joe Blow returns home to tell Mrs. Blow. And by that time, it’s turned into a sensational conspiracy theory about aliens, men in black vehicles, and the image of the Virgin Mary in the horse’s stool.

A few years ago, the Big Scare was bird flu. Before that, it was SARS. It’s like the media is drooling to find just one pandemic prophecy that is fulfilled. I didn’t get bird flu (though I think one of my friends did) and I didn’t get SARS. But I did panic about it for a while. Because, you know, that whole widow thing makes me extremely sensitive to unseen threats. Especially since my husband died from an unseen threat, though it was a genetic condition of his heart and not a disease.

It’s really the media’s fault that I look skeptically at anything I read or hear. If they didn’t play Chicken Little, shouting that the sky is falling every other day, maybe once in a while I’d believe something instead of regarding it with the same judgment I do for the eye-witnesses of a car crash.

The fact that it seems so hard to get the Swine Flu vaccine is making the choice easier for me. I’m not going to wait in some three-hour long line like a cow in a slaughter line. I haven’t called to check if my doctor because I don’t want to look like one of those panicky germophobic sorts. I envision my doctor saying, “You’re really not eligible for this vaccine. We’re giving it to people who are at high risk.”

As my mom points out, H1N1 has been largely a respiratory issue. I have (very, very mild) asthma. I guess that puts me in some risk category. But I just can’t see myself as going down that way. I suppose no one really sees themselves meeting their end in a particular way. But I just don’t see myself as frail. I’m pretty healthy and energetic. It can’t affect me, right?

I’m really on the fence. After listening to more people tonight prophetize pandemic doom, I started thinking about getting it again. Of course, on the way home, a local radio show host was also discussing Swine Flu and getting vaccinations. Even though it was the dullard who is oft the conspiracy theorist, and all the people who call him are freaks,  it still caused me a moment of pause.

I wish they gave them out at work or something. Then it wouldn’t inconvenience me–taking time out of my work day because doctors never have hours that are friendly to those of us minions who have a job–to get one. Maybe if a local bike shop or something had them. Then I could look around at bike toys while waiting for my turn at the needle. Hmm. That would be a great promotion. Get one “Define Your Life. Ride a Bike” item with every flu shot… I still need the coffee mug…

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4 thoughts on “To vaccinate or not to vaccinate

  1. You could always wait until whichever strain does become the epidemic/pandemic and THEN get your shot, since when the risk does reach 1918 levels the local governments (at least in Cuyahoga County) have plans in place for mass inoculations. This was one of the drills I was involved with last year, and how I got my flu shot, because Cuyahoga County Board of Health (I think, I assume, I don’t remember the exact name of the agency running this drill) was set up in a local high school to see how quickly they could inoculate a mass crowd. I even got to time some of the stations during the drill.

    As for bloodwork, you’d never know my triglycerides were sky-high. _I_ would never know my triglycerides were sky-high if I didn’t have occasional bloodwork done, because that’s something where if I waited until something felt wrong, it’s too late. Like with my aunt. Maybe, just maybe, knowing our family’s history, if she had been pro-active and been getting regular check-ups, she would have found out she was diabetic BEFORE she had her stroke. She was of the mind-set, “Oh, I know the signs, if I start to see any of them, then I’ll visit my doctor.”

    Not trying to cause any more paranoia, but there’s a difference between being all panicky about one’s health and being responsible and pro-active about one’s health. It’s just like with my car for me. Taking my car for an oil change is a pain, but I make time for it because I don’t want my car to break down. Making time for my annual physical is a pain, but I make time for it because I know there are some serious health issues in my family and I don’t want me to break down.

    (Which makes me wonder, when was the last time your car had an oil change? ;)

  2. Di, I never get the cholesterol tests done because taking blood really puts me and my body out for the rest of the day. I get so worked up about it… and if I get to the point where I almost faint, I just feel like crap all day… I figure I probably have fine cholesterol levels… I eat mostly healthy and I ride so much. I cant imagine anything’s really wrong with me…

    Though. That’s what we all thought about Mike, too.

    Bah.

    I’m still not going to ask for a physical. I see my primary care physician once a year to get my asthma and allergy prescriptions refilled… never once has she suggested I get a full physical… and I’m sure as hell not going to ask… if she suggests I get one, without me prompting, then I’ll do it.

  3. I, too, like your new website. I like that I don’t have to register in order to comment. (at least I haven’t been asked to register yet!)

    Your summation of the flu information out there is pretty good, sensible. Millions of people have been infected so far, and for most of them it has been milder than was anticipated. The worry over this year’s swine flu is:

    1. The higher risk populations are not the very old and very young (newborns may benefit from their mother’s immunity, especially if mom got vaccinated.)
    2. Pregnant woman are at high risk.
    3. Young people between the ages of 5-25.
    4. People with asthma, emphysema, diabetes, and other chronic conditions.
    And when people get severely ill, they very quickly need life support. We continue to get very sick individuals at the place where I work. The problems they have are extreme, and the settings we put them on, on the ventilators are extreme. These are the sickest patients, and they are not old…they should be expecting a long life ahead…it is scary to witness.
    5. People who may not have retained immunity from previous type A Swine Flu outbreaks. You and your brother fall into that category.

    Currently the vaccine may not be available for you…sometime in November probably.

    The way I look at it: The risk in getting vaccinated is nil. The benefit is great. I would prefer not getting sick, staying home and having my life interrupted. I have had both the seasonal flu and the swine flu vaccination.

    Another very important consideration is that the more people who get vaccinated, the less total cases will occur, and you may be helping someone else who is in the high risk group, because you will not be shedding virus on them. Multiply that out many times and you can better understand the drive to vaccinate.

    Sorry I scared you…but you are more likely to get the flu than to have cancer.

    Per your conversation with Diane: At your age it is time to get baseline bloodwork.

    You don’t feel high cholestral or triglycerides, right Diane?

    Mom

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