The second wave of novel H1N1 influenza — the swine flu — is over, and the number of new cases continues to decrease. However, this does not mean that the virus is finished. The 1918 flu swept the world in three waves: first in the spring and summer of 1918, then in the fall, and finally a third wave the following spring. Luckily, this strain of H1N1 is nowhere near as deadly as the one from 1918. Nonetheless, the virus still poses a danger, as does the seasonal flu.
Seasonal influenza kills more Americans each year than any other vaccine-preventable illness, but those deaths are mostly among the elderly, the very young and the sick — people whose immune systems cannot fight off the virus. To the young and the healthy, college students in particular, the virus is not too bad. Maybe you'll get a fever, a headache or some soreness, but nothing serious. H1N1 isn't too bad either. It does disproportionately affect younger people more than the seasonal flu, which is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend vaccination for anyone under the age of 25, but it still has killed about 10,000 people in the United States since April. Seasonal flu kills over three times that number each year.
Last semester, a friend told me that he wasn't going to get a flu shot because he doubted he would catch it. The same reasoning seems to work for most people. A recent CDC survey of H1N1 vaccination rates showed that only 28 percent of their target population (those most at risk from the virus, including people under 25) has been vaccinated and only 20 percent of the general population.
Low vaccination rates are not just a problem for those who decide not to be vaccinated. Not everyone who would want to get vaccinated can. Vaccines ultimately rely on your immune system to fight off the virus so those with compromised immune systems (e.g. new-born babies and people with immune diseases) are not helped by them. Even those who chose to get vaccinated are not guaranteed that it prepares their immune systems adequately. Everyone is better off not encountering the virus at all. But if so many people choose to forgo vaccination, they put everyone else at greater risk.
When between 75 percent and 95 percent of the population was vaccinated for diseases such as diptheria and pertussis, something called herd immunity kicked in. When herd immunity occurs, the virus finds itself surrounded by a desert of immunized bodies and has nowhere to spread. It cannot find anyone to infect. This protects the people whose bodies could not have fought the infection, as well as everyone else. Our rates for influenza vaccination are far below this threshold.
This is how humans wiped smallpox off the face of the globe. We vaccinated and vaccinated until the virus was isolated. This is also how our species is trying to wipe out diseases like polio and measles.
But there is a growing problem of organized movements that campaign against vaccination. The anti-vaccination movement focuses on trying to link vaccines to autism.
Members claim that vaccines for diseases like measles, mumps and rubella and ingredients like thimerosal, a preservative in some vaccines, cause autism. The evidence says otherwise. Study after study has shown no link between vaccines and autism.
Though there is no evidence that thimerosal can cause autism, it was still removed from childhood vaccines to allay any fears. A decade later, autism rates have not been affected and vaccination rates have. The movement bills itself as promoting safety, but it is really promoting disease and death. Due to a decrease in vaccination, cases of measles are on the rise after endemic measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000.
Similar problems are occurring around the world with diseases like whooping cough and polio.
If you have any concerns over the safety of vaccines, talk to a doctor and look at what medical organizations like the CDC have to say. Do not trust the claims of the anti-vaccination movement or even the claims of an opinions columnist. Look at the evidence and talk with actual doctors. You are much more likely to die of any of these diseases than to get a serious side effect from their vaccines.
If you don't want to get vaccinated because you do not think you will get sick, fine. Get vaccinated to protect those to whom you might spread the virus — people who do not have as robust an immune system as yours. Your grandparents, infants and the sick all benefit if you do your part to stop the spread of these diseases. This is the real reason you should follow the CDC guidelines. Even if you do get a sore arm, it will be worth it.
David Sheffield '11 is a fully vaccinated math-physics concentrator from New Jersey. He can be contacted at david_sheffield(at)brown.edu