Editorial Comment

Flu Shot Concerns

I’ve always been a big supporter of the flu shot. My family gets ours yearly because of certain health risks that necessitate not taking the disease lightly. Given that, according to the Community and Hospital Infection Control Association of Canada, the illness accounts for between 500 and 1500 deaths yearly, perhaps no one should take it lightly. It just seemed so cut and dried; get a flu shot and save yourself some grief. It’s a “no-brainer” as they say.
That view isn’t shared as widely as I assumed, however. Dissenting opinions about the value of a flu shot are widespread both among health care professionals and the general public. Stories abound of people claiming they got sick immediately after receiving their inoculation. Some even claim they cause such serious conditions as autism. Doctors and researchers debunk these claims but the rumours persist that these shots are not as safe as we assume. Some even claim it’s part of a government conspiracy to insert tracking chips in every citizen they can dupe.
I’ve scoffed at such suggestions, but now I’m not as sure. Not that I think the government is “up to something”, but their programs and departments are certainly as fallible as the humans that staff them. This includes health services agencies that have certainly made mistakes over the years and are influenced by companies with strong profit motives. There is no doubt the companies that make the vaccines also make a ton of cash for their efforts although there is no argument they should be rewarded with profits.
Therein lies the main point of contention. The pro-shot side wants as many people as possible to get the vaccine to help stop the flu from spreading.  The more people immunized, the safer the total population will be, even those who refused the shot. However, those in the anti-immunization camp insist it’s a personal decision. If someone chooses not to be inoculated, those that have been should be unaffected. There are certain vocations, though, where getting the flu shot is not only strongly encouraged, but is actually mandatory, such as recently been decreed for BC health workers. It seems reasonable for people involved with the sick and elderly should take every precaution against getting whatever is going around, but should it be mandatory? Given the results of a new study it’s easy to see why some may resist.
The report in question which has received much press, was conducted by Canadian researchers and was presented for peer review in an international symposium in San Francisco. The research indicated in the 2008/2009 flu season, those that received their annual shot were statistically more likely to get the pandemic flu virus, which wasn’t covered by the regular vaccination.
The study was lead by Dr. Danuta Skowronski, a flu guru from the BC Centre for Disease Control.  The doctor’s team used ferrets in place of human subjects for obvious safety reasons. Ferrets are our closest match in the animal kingdom for disease uptake. She and her team found clear evidence the ferrets inoculated with the annual flu vaccine were much more likely to contract the pandemic version than those not vaccinated. The ones that acquired the pandemic flu also became significantly sicker than the non-immunized test ferrets.
The scientists in no way suggested this was proof that vaccinations were dangerous. They claimed the problem during the 2008 – 2009 flu season was a rarity due to a fluke protein match that allowed the bug into the system without the body’s defenses being alerted quickly, letting the infection to gain a foothold.
Still, even with the explanation, it is concerning and if you’re like me with doubts about the program, you’re not alone.  In Canada a little less than a third of people get a flu shot as opposed to the US where there is a 42% adoption rate. This is despite the fact that most Americans have to pay for their shots while in Canada, they are largely free and readily available. Health care workers in BC had an adoption rate below 50% prior to the new ruling.
Also of note is that in Canada, adoption rates seem to run along race lines with Filipino Canadians leading the way with 41% getting immunized, versus just 27% of our black population. The Statistics Canada Data Centre also listed adoption percentages for Japanese Canadians with 38%, Chinese at 35% and South Asian tied with “white” Canadians at the national average at 32%.
Experts have weighed in on the issue trying to explain the huge differences in the numbers. Some speculate the uptake rates in these various ethnic groups aren’t so much a reflection of race but of language. Some populations may not be as exposed to negative immunization reports, either true or false if they aren’t consumers of the mainstream media. There is also the possibility they have come from places where disease is a recent cultural memory and are keen to look at prevention. It is obvious, however, distrust is widespread.
Unfortunately, like every other issue out there, whether flu shots are a help or a danger has become extremely polarized. Adherents look at those with concerns as conspiracy theorists which, undoubtedly some are, but are they all? On the side of science and “Big Pharma” are the arguments supported by endless mind-numbing statistics and complex explanations of what may have gone wrong.
I still believe getting a flu shot is the wiser choice. Statistically, immunization does have demonstrably proven benefits for both individuals and society as whole.  I will be getting mine, although this year I’ll just be a bit more nervous.

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