Remember, the illness is worse than the shot

It was heartening to see the turnout at the point of distribution (POD) flu clinic held at Vermillion High School last Thursday.

It demonstrated that a good number of citizens from Clay and Union counties are concerned about the H1N1 flu, and the seasonal flu, for that matter.

There's good reason to be. Late last month, the Centers for Disease Control noted that, nationwide, H1N1 had claimed more than 1,000 lives, including nearly 100 pediatric cases.

South Dakota's flu activity was continuing its upward trend through the week ending Oct. 24 – in other words, the week before the POD clinic in Vermillion.

By Oct. 24, according to the South Dakota Department of Health, there were 421 new H1N1 cases in the state. Seventy-three people in the state were hospitalized because of the illness, and five deaths were reported.

The state health department's cumulative numbers, from Sept. 1 through Oct. 24, show that there have been 1,286 cases statewide, with 232 hospitalizations and nine deaths.

The median age of South Dakotans succumbing to the flu, as of Oct. 24, is 48. The youngest fatality was 8, the oldest, 96. Nearly 90 percent of the deaths were male.

As of late October, about 8 percent of school children were absent because of the flu. To put that figure in perspective, out of 248 schools reporting, there were 83,462 absences.

And, nationally, according to the most recent report from the state health department, flu activity was widespread in 46 states and influenza-like illness, flu-related hospitalizations and flu-related deaths are all higher than expected for this time of year.

In other words, it's probably a good idea to get both a seasonal flu shot and a H1N1 shot.

The H1N1 vaccine at last week's clinic in Vermillion was given primarily to young children and people who fall in high-risk categories. There were approximately 1,000 doses left over; that couldn't be given last week because of the restrictive rules set down by the state health department.

That's not necessarily bad news. It means that people who didn't fit the rather narrow qualifications of last week's POD should likely be able to eventually get a H1N1 shot, should they desire, from their doctor or local medical clinic.

When it's clear that availability of the vaccine warrants more widespread distribution, we encourage everyone to get a shot.

We feel certain it's the right thing to do, despite the numerous opinion pieces that have appeared of late stating that since the vaccine is new and not all that much is known about it, people should avoid getting a shot.

Those concerns have been voiced locally. Tucker Knutson, a columnist for USD's Volante, joined the group of H1N1 vaccine naysayers. In early October, in a column entitled "Think before getting H1N1 vaccine," he wrote:

"It is up to families and individuals to make their own educated decisions pertaining to the receiving of a flu vaccine this year. One must come to a conclusion that decides whether getting sick with H1N1 or receiving a potentially unsafe vaccine is a higher risk to their health."

 South Dakota's "traditional" flu season hasn't arrived yet. Yet in our sparsely populated, wide-open prairie state, nearly 1,300 have been ill with the flu, over 200 have been hospitalized, and nine people have died. One of the near-fatalities, who thankfully is recovering at home after a touch-and-go battle with the illness, is a USD student.

People who spread fear about the H1N1 vaccine usually never mention one important piece of information: the illness is deadlier than the inoculation.

Approved vaccines – including the 2009 H1N1 swine flu vaccine – are calculated to be much, much less risky than the diseases they prevent. For example, out of every million people who get a flu shot, one or two will get a serious neurological reaction called Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS).

But flu itself causes serious problems, including GBS, in far more than two in a million cases. And since a large proportion of the population will get swine flu, the vaccine risk is far smaller than the disease risk.

Daniel J. DeNoon, writing for WebMD, notes that in clinical trials, 10,000 to 15,000 children and adults have received various manufacturers' brands of H1N1 swine flu vaccine. Nothing serious happened to any of them. DeNoon himself received a double dose of the swine flu vaccine. He reports that he's feeling fine.

That, of course, isn't proof that no harm will come from the vaccine. Clinical trials cannot detect something bad that happens to one or two out of every 100,000 people vaccinated.

"There could be unknown side effects. Something could happen. But we think that is highly unlikely," says infectious disease and vaccine expert Mark Mulligan, MD, executive director of the Hope Clinic of the Emory Vaccine Center in Atlanta, GA.

We hope citizens, as they contemplate whether to get a shot of H1N1 vaccine, will listen to the experts. Should you still have doubts, just remember one thing.

Despite the air of uncertainty about the vaccine – which is natural, since it is new – one thing is known for certain. H1N1 may make you very ill. It may even kill you. The vaccine? Odds are that 1 or 2 people out of million may get a serious reaction.

Less than a million people live in South Dakota. The state's population has decreased by nine because of deaths caused by H1N1.

The odds are definitely favoring South Dakotans with the wisdom to not fear the H1N1 vaccine.

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