Coughing, fever, chills, delirium, exhaustion: about a month ago my husband was as sick as I’ve ever seen him. He’s normally a really healthy guy and at worst gets a bad head cold a couple of times a year. Plus the odd stomach bug – with four germ-toting tots at home, the vomits are inevitable every year. But this time was different. After watching him worsen for several days (and listening to him hallucinate feverishly at night), I finally took him to emergency care. He could barely sit up on his own as we waited for the doctor. After running several tests, the verdict came back: Influenza, type A. He had the flu?? I was shocked. Thanks to my obsession with “After the Dancing Days” (I swear I read that book 20 times in fifth grade) I’m sadly well versed in the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic – it killed over 25 million people, ten times the number of casualties in World War I and was remarkable for mainly targeting the healthiest people between 16-40 years old while leaving infants and the elderly alive. Yet I was still surprised by the extent of my husband’s illness. I guess I’d never really seen the flu in the flesh before. At least not like this.
After confirming influenza, the doctor gave us two unhappy pieces of news: First, there was nothing to do for it but keep him comfortable and keep a close eye on his symptoms (Tamiflu only works if given right at the onset of flu). And second, similar to the 1918 flu, this year’s strains seem to also hit the young and healthy the hardest. He mentioned several patients on life support because of the flu, all of them young, healthy adults. Then the doctor eyed my children and I. “How are you guys feeling?” he asked pointedly.
Fine as sunshine. We’d all had the flu shot this year. And thankfully it seemed to be a good match, at least in our case, as the rest of us haven’t got so much as a sniffle despite the flu being highly contagious. Heck I even kissed him on the lips while he was sick. This was the first time I’ve been able to really see just what the vaccine was protecting us from. I’ll be honest, it kind of shook me. My husband was so, so sick. In the past I’ve been pretty lackadaisical about getting the flu shot. This year I only got it because I happened to be in my doctor’s office for my heart stuff and the nurse was like “You want to get a flu shot while you’re waiting?”. I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to get one. But I’m glad I did.
But vaccines are far from as simple as one anecdote.
Wanna start a fight on the Internet? It used to be you could just throw out something simple like “breast is best!” or “cardio is a waste of time!” or “Miley Cyrus” and just sit back and watch the flame-darts fly. But today it seems like the fastest way to get people all riled up is to talk about vaccines – which makes some sense since unlike breastfeeding, cardio and twerking, vaccination can be a life or death matter. (Now if you’re breastfeeding while twerking on the treadmill then maybe…) A recent article floating around the Internet “Growing Up Un-vaccinated” has become the lightning rod for all of the feelings.
In the piece Amy Parker describes how she was raised by “hippie health nuts” who were very against vaccinating. After explaining her super healthy childhood – she was fed only natural, local, organic foods; played outside; no sugar; she wasn’t even allowed to wear “plastic shoes” – she confesses that what happened next seemed to make no sense:
As healthy as my lifestyle seemed, I contracted measles, mumps, rubella, a type of viral meningitis, scarlatina, whooping cough, yearly tonsillitis, and chickenpox, some of which are vaccine preventable. In my twenties I got precancerous HPV and spent 6 months of my life wondering how I was going to tell my two children under the age of 7 that mummy might have cancer before it was safely removed.
I got so many illnesses which needed treatment with antibiotics that I developed a resistance to them, which led me to be hospitalized with penicillin-resistant quinsy at 21–you know that old fashioned disease that killed Queen Elizabeth I and which was almost wiped out through use of antibiotics. [Charlotte’s note: I had to look up quinsy after this dramatic story! It’s pus pockets on the backs of your tonsils. According to most sources it seems Queen Elizabeth I died of blood poisoning and depression but apparently George Washington may have died of quinsy! Okay I’m done geeking out. You’re welcome for all that useless trivia you did not ask for.)
But once Parker realized that she might have been spared two decades of agony had her parents gotten her her shots, she got angry and decided to use her story to rebut the many anti-vaccine anecdotes out there.
“Anecdotal evidence is nothing to base decisions on. But when facts and evidence-based science aren’t good enough to sway someone’s opinion, then this is where I come from. After all, anecdotes are the anti-vaccine supporter’s way. Well, this is my personal experience. And my personal experience prompts me to vaccinate my children and myself.”
Parker makes an interesting point. First, because of the way vaccines work, you don’t often hear of the “success” stories. If they’re doing their job then nothing changes at all. Even if not everyone in a population is vaccinated, as long as most of them are then the “herd immunity” protects everyone. Second, because it’s generally parents making the choices for their young children, you don’t often hear the perspective of the kids.
Yet I was surprised when Jezebel reprinted the article (which quickly garnered over a million likes and shot up to be one of their most popular articles) how many commenters said things like not vaccinating your kids is tantamount to child abuse and “anti-vaxxers” should have their kids taken away. And those were just the nice comments. Others said the parents deserved to die or be put in jail. Still others said it vaccination should be made mandatory by law. Several commenters pointed out that people who don’t vaccinate unnecessarily put others with weakened immune systems, who can’t be vaccinated, in grave danger. If there were any dissenting voices, they were quickly shouted down.
Compare that to a parenting group I follow where not vaccinating is the norm and and I’ve seen moms compare vaccination to Nazi eugenics. (It’s not an Internet argument until somebody lays the Nazi trump card!) They are every bit as sure that their position is the correct one and just as willing to attack someone for having an alternate view.
Me personally, while I enjoy a lively debate, I hate flame wars and so I’m not even going to touch the topic of child immunization*. What I’m more interested in here are the “optional” vaccines for adults. In addition to flu shots we’ve all probably had the experience of stepping on a nail or needing stitches and having to get the obligatory tetanus shot. But did you know that apparently we’re all supposed to get MMR boosters after 18 years old? The CDC has a handy quiz to tell you what vaccines you need now, as an adult, even if you were vaccinated as a kid.
But do we really need them? I’ll admit to thinking that since I’ve already had chicken pox as a kid (and have the scars on my forehead to prove it!) and I had all my shots then that I probably don’t need anymore. But perhaps this is hubris. Up until this year I was also on the fence about the flu shot.
The conversation about vaccines is different as an adult. We’re making the choices for ourselves rather than having our parents force us to align with their views. We’re not at risk for developing autism and if we have any allergies we likely know about them by now so the worries about side effects are lessened. (Not saying that autism is a side effect of immunizations rather that people worry about autism and that worry doesn’t apply to adults.) And unless you work in the military or certain branches of healthcare, we also don’t have to have the shots to go to work or school. There’s a lot less pressure for grown-ups to get their shots in general. Plus, healthy living communities – both online and in real life – tend to focus more on building the immune system through proper nutrition, exercise, sunshine, probiotics and the like. In some circles getting a vaccine is like saying you’ve just given up.
But the flu shot is a whole other animal. This year the CDC is warning that the main virulent strain H1N1 (remember that one? The swine flu went pandemic in 2009.) is going to see a sharp uptick in the coming month. At the moment it’s shy of a pandemic but Christmas Eve they released a health alert saying that with many states reporting high levels of flu activity it could get worse quickly. They also add that “for the 2013-14 season, if pH1N1 virus continues to circulate widely, illness that disproportionately affects young and middle-aged adults may occur.”
If you want to know more about conditions where you live, Google Flu Trends has a live updating map that shows high flu activity in North America and Spain with lower numbers in Europe and South America. Even if you don’t care about the shots the interactive map is pretty cool to play with! I love technology.
Science writer Tara Haelle wrote a great piece “Setting the Record Straight: Debunking All the Flu Vaccine Myths” that goes through all the common questions and arguments about the flu vaccine. While other sites like WebMD have done similar, I like Haelle’s piece because she links all of her sources (over 100 of them!) and most are peer-reviewed, scientific studies. No anecdotal stuff here. I also love science.
In the end, Parker sums up her story saying she chose to get the flu shot because, “I was so freaking crunchy that I literally crumbled. It was only when I took control of those paranoid thoughts and fears about the world around me and became an objective critical thinker that I got well. It was when I stopped taking sugar pills for everything and started seeing medical professionals that I began to thrive physically and mentally.”
Obviously people have a lot of strong feelings on this subject and I’m not telling you that you should get vaccinated because that’s the choice I made for myself. But I’m super interested in hearing your opinions! Do you get the flu shot? Does the “pandemic warning” change your mind at all or do you see it as hype? What about other adult vaccines – do you get them?
*If you are curious, all of my children are vaccinated fully and on schedule. They also usually get the flu shot every year.