Swine flu: what you should know about the vaccine and protection

Swine flu is being billed as a potential killer this winter, but health officials still tell us the best public defense is washing our hands. Everyone should get H1N1 flu shots, the feds say, yet media reports warn there may not be enough vaccine. Some suggest the seasonal flu shot actually increases the chances of getting swine flu, while others say it reduces the chances. Confused? Scared? If so, you're not alone.

With this in mind, DailyFinance looked into some of the concerns and realities surrounding the virus and how best we can protect ourselves. Here's what we found out:

Concern: H1N1 vaccine won't be available for a long time.

Reality: It's already here. The first doses of swine flu vaccine arrived Monday.

Concern: There won't be enough H1N1 vaccine for everyone in time for flu season.

Reality: Of the 250 million doses of vaccine in both spray and injectable forms ordered, 600,000 doses of nasal FluMist were being shipped this past week. We have a ways to go. Many states and hospitals say they are getting far fewer vaccines in the first batch shipped than originally anticipated.

For example, Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, one of the first hospitals in New York City to receive the H1N1 vaccine, so far received only 500 doses of the 120,000 doses ordered. Meanwhile, 37 states are reporting widespread activity of influenza.

Visits to doctors for influenza, hospitalization rates for influenza and the proportion of deaths attributed to pneumonia and influenza are higher than normal -- and increasing, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It seems then that while all the ordered vaccines may eventually arrive, they've already missed the beginning of the season.

Concern: Seasonal flu vaccine increases the chances of getting H1N1.

Reality: Mexico released a study suggesting seasonal flu vaccine offers some protection against H1N1 vaccine. Canada said it found the opposite: that seasonal flu vaccine lowers the immunity against H1N1. This is one question that is still open, although many dub the Canadian study as the "Canadian Problem," as it hasn't offered the data for review yet.

The likely scenario, many agree, is that seasonal flu vaccine actually provides no benefit and no harm against swine flu.

Concern: There are differing reports over whether to get the H1N1 vaccine or the seasonal flu vaccine, or both.

Reality: Right now, the CDC recommends getting both shots when they become available as the strains are different and despite the H1N1 flu likely to be the most common one this season, CDC still expects that seasonal flu will also circulate.

Concern: The Health and Human Services Department says everyone should get vaccinated, but there aren't enough vaccines.

Reality: For the different flus, there are different groups at risk.

According to the CDC, people who should get a seasonal flu shot include:

  • Adults 50 and older.
  • All children age 6 months to 18 years.
  • Pregnant women.
  • People with chronic health problems like asthma, heart disease or a weakened immune system.
  • Health care workers.
  • Caregivers of people at high-risk, including babies younger than 6 months of age.

Those first in line for swine flu shots should be:

  • pregnant women,
  • people who live with or provide care for infants younger than 6 months (e.g., parents, siblings, and day care providers),
  • health care and emergency medical services personnel,
  • people 6 months through 24 years of age, and,
  • people 25 years through 64 years of age who have certain medical conditions that put them at higher risk for influenza-related complications.
Then there are certain people who should not get the vaccine, including those with allergies to eggs or to any other substance in the vaccine. Details can be found here for the nasal spray and here for the flu shot.

Concern: It's not clear whether it's better to get the vaccine in the form of a shot or nasal spray.

Reality: A recent study recently found that standard shots were twice as effective against regular seasonal flu as the newer nasal spray. It's important here to emphasize that the study was about regular seasonal flu vaccine, not the H1N1 vaccine.

Experts say both kinds might be equally effective against the swine flu in children and adults.

Concern: There's little clarity on whether to get one or two doses.

Reality: To date, most studies (the most recent one from Sanofi Aventis (SNY)) suggest that a single dose would be enough for most of the population, although the exception is young children through 9 years of age, who should get two doses of vaccine, about a month apart. Older children and adults need only one dose, the CDC vaccine information statement says.

Concern: Getting the vaccine creates other problems.

Reality: There has also been some misleading information from some anti-vaccine groups as well as fears tracing back to the vaccine fiasco in 1976 when a swine flu vaccine caused the Guillain-Barré syndrome. But the CDC and HHS assure the public, especially parents who are asked to immunize their kids as they are in the higher risk group (19 flu-related pediatric deaths were reported this week alone), that the vaccine has been tested and is as safe as seasonal flu vaccine.

Concern: Hand washing can't be the best prevention method we have besides the vaccine.

Reality: It's been hammered into us ever since swine flu gained pandemic status that washing hands is the best way to prevent infection. But CNN aired reports expressing doubts about hand washing as a preventative measure. "Washing hands really is wonderful for preventing many diseases, such as the common cold, but it's not very helpful to prevent influenza," Arthur Reingold, professor of epidemiology at the University of California-Berkeley, told the network.

A spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told CNN that, indeed, there isn't strong evidence that hand washing fights H1N1. It seems a simple sneeze takes all that hand washing out the window. That said, don't stop washing your hands as it is still the best and simplest available option we have (barring avoiding any public places).
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