Friday, January 7, 2011

Vaccine or Poison?

"Did you get your flu shot yet?"

This is probably a question that's going around and you've probably been harassed by at least one person, in the health care field or possibly, your mother, who has asked you this. And every year, the debate seems to rage between those who believe that the flu vaccine is the greatest public health tool known to man and those conspiracy theorists who believe that flu shots are actually poisonous and unnecessary inventions of big pharmaceutical companies.

On the one hand, there has been substantial proof that vaccines have been a good thing for humankind. It's helped to eliminate many diseases that would have crippled or killed the population in the past, back when medicine wasn't nearly as advanced, people were not so well-educated and vaccines would not have been readily available to the public at large. Fair enough. Who's died of polio recently in Canada? Vaccines do their job, particularly for those who are considered at risk, such as young children and seniors.

On the other hand, when it comes to the flu vaccine in particular, there hasn't been substantial proof that it prevents or limits the duration or severity of the flu by a large enough margin to make its case as convincing. Some research has indicated that the flu vaccine in an otherwise healthy person who isn't considered high risk, has only a marginal affect, making a flu last 5 days instead of 8. Which some people would say is enough of a difference to make them willing to try it, except for the fact that a vaccine isn't a cure: basic bedrest and fluids are.

The arguments against the vaccine range from the sublime to the ridiculous. On an episode of the Simpsons, when Homer puts up his own website full of conspiracy theories, he proposes that the flu vaccine is pumped up with chemicals that make you want to go shopping, which is why it's administered so close to the Christmas season. While it would be fair to put aside this theory as highly improbable, other arguments have been made which should be given at least partial consideration.

1- the pharmaceutical companies are out to get you.

Well, not really. They do make profits off of scares, though, as the H1N1 'epidemic' resulted in panic and bids for Tamiflu. It also caused stocks in Purell to sky rocket, and both these companies in the US have ties to the very politicians who fanned the flames on this scare in the public eye.

There have also been claims that the shots contain poison such as mercury. While even tuna has been found to have trace forms of mercury, this isn't really enough to poison anyone. But in modern life, it appears that everything has poison, from our drinking water to cellphones deep frying our brains with wire connections. So while the poison theory is interesting, it may not be a focal point for this debate.

2- vaccines are not natural and lower your immune system.

I think that this argument only applies to those in prime health, with good DNA and boatloads of optimism. It may be true that it's best to trust your organism to deal with things as they arise, but most of us don't have that kind of confidence anymore. We all lost it back in the days when we still died off the common cold. Orange juice, rest, exercise and light only take you so far; it's possible that the shot gives you extra peace of mind.

3- the vaccine makes people sick.

I've heard enough anecdotal evidence to think that this is partially true. The side effects of the flu shot sometimes includes the flu, which means that there is a small amount of the population that will actually get the flu as a result of getting the shot. It's another way for some bodies to learn how to defend against it. And being sick at home after the shot is better than being sent to the hospital at a later date.

This debate will likely occur every year and with more ferocity on both ends. Believers will likely treat non-believers like a bunch of free radical tree hugging conspiracy theorists Nazis who don't care about the children or the elderly enough to see past their noses. Non-believers will likely treat the believers as a group of hyper paranoid conformist Conservatives who bubble wrap their children before going to the park. Either way, it comes down to this: the vaccine is a choice. The public is free to make that choice and all high risk groups will likely get the vaccine because they believe in it, along with the hypochondriacs who believe they're already dying of everything. Whatever the reasons for those not taking it, they still have that choice.

What we should all do is educate ourselves. And stock up on medicine, ginger ale, chicken soup and kleenex. Either way, it's just another cold hard winter in Canada and the sniffles are everywhere.

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