Health & Medicine

H1N1 flu myths and facts

I received an e-mail message Monday that was filled with fear and warnings about the seasonal and H1N1 vaccines. The sender, and all those before him on the forwarding list, admonished me not to take the flu shot.

It was wasted on me.

I've been taking a seasonal flu vaccine since 2005, after my first bout with lung cancer. Other than a sore arm at the spot of the injection, I've not noticed any other side effects.

And I've not had the flu.

There is no way to change the minds of those who fear a government conspiracy to kill us all with the H1N1 vaccine, although I don't know why the government would want to get rid of taxpayers in these economic times. But the rest of us should make educated decisions about the issue and not fall for some of the myths and inaccuracies that are racing through our communities and the Internet.

I called Dr. Melinda Rowe, Fayette County's commissioner of health, to ask about the misconceptions and the truth.

Myth: The most common myth the health department has dealt with, Rowe said, is that swine flu, or H1N1, comes from pigs.

Fact: There are a few illnesses that one can get from under-cooked pork, but the flu is not one of them, she said. "People stopped eating pork" when the swine flu was first reported earlier this year, she said, but that wasn't necessary.

Myth: There is an effort afoot to get rid of old people. Besides, people older than 65 are not eligible to get the H1N1 vaccine.

Fact: That misinformation might stem from a nationwide push to get children, young people, pregnant women and people of all ages who have other health problems immunized first, Rowe said. That is the demographic that seems to experience the worst effects and complications from this strain of flu.

According to recent studies, it seems that the elderly have come across a similar strain of H1N1 bug sometime in their past, giving them partial immunity.

Numbers in the United States from April indicate that 9,000 people were hospitalized with H1N1. There were 600 deaths. Of those hospitalizations and deaths, 75 percent of the people were younger than 49. Plus, Rowe said, 70 percent of those hospitalized and 80 percent of those who died were people who had underlying health conditions.

"I want those people to be first in line for those vaccines," Rowe said. "I want those 65 and older to get immunized, but let their children and grandchildren get it (the immunization) first and then come get it."

Myth: When I get the flu shot, I always get the flu. Getting H1N1 is inevitable.

Fact: "You don't get the flu from a flu shot," Rowe said. The vaccine contains a killed virus. The problem might be that people get inoculated when the virus is already in circulation in a community. People are infectious 24 hours before signs of the flu appear, so they might already have the flu before getting the shot. Still, with the shot, their symptoms might be less severe.

Myth: The H1N1 vaccine is mandatory.

Fact: No, Rowe said. Health care workers are strongly urged to get the vaccine, but nowhere in Kentucky is it mandatory. "We like to nudge people instead of hitting them over the head with a hammer," Rowe said.

Rowe also recommended that patients receiving dialysis and folks like me with a history of lung problems also get a pneumonia shot every few years.

Since April, not many people who have had flu symptoms have been tested for H1N1, Rowe said, so it might be good for them to get the vaccine as well. "It won't hurt you to get the shot," she said. "It's extra protection."

She also said that people of color, who are more often saddled with diabetes, hyper tension and other chronic medical conditions, don't tend to get immunized.

She said there will be free flu-shot clinics set up when the virus arrives, eliminating access and cost excuses.

"We want to increase immunization rates for people of color," Rowe said.

She has gotten the seasonal vaccine and will get the H1N1 when it gets here.

I plan to do the same.