H1N1 Flu Update
I have seen more children and adults with influenza-like illness: 104 degree fevers, muscle soreness, sore throat and negative tests for strep, than in any summer I can remember. I haven’t used the “flu swab” to test anybody, but I’m sure that many if not most of these sick people had Swine Flu. They all felt miserable, and they are all feeling just fine now.
Preventing outbreaks of this “novel H1N1” influenza may be a mistake of huge proportions. Yes, sadly, there will be fatalities among the 6 billion citizens of the planet. Tens of millions of cases of any illness will lead to morbidity and mortality, but this is completely (tragically) unavoidable. The consequences of not acquiring immunity this time around, however, could be really terrible and far outweigh a mass prevention program.
Here’s my rationale for not using Tamiflu: If (if, if, if) this virus circles the globe as the rather innocent influenza it now appears to be, but mutates and returns as a very virulent form of influenza, it will be quite wonderful and life-saving to have formed antibodies against its 2009 version. These antibodies may be far from 100% protective, but they will help. This is incredibly important but being ignored in the interest of expediency.
In 1918, it appears that influenza A (an H1N1, by the way) did this globe-trotting mutation and killed millions. The times and state of medical care are not comparable, but a milder parallel occurrence is possible. Perhaps this happens every 100 years or so, perhaps every three million.
Whenever possible, we should form antibodies against viruses at the right stage of their existence and at the right stage of our lives (For example, chickenpox in childhood and EBV/mono in early childhood. There are many other examples.) Getting many viral illnesses confers lifetime immunity, and very few vaccines do.
Tamiflu is a very powerful drug with little proven efficacy against this bug, and with its major side effect being tummy upset. I’m not using it at all. Psychiatric side effects are also possible.
I also won’t be giving the flu shot to the kids and parents in my practice unless there are extraordinary risk factors. I anticipate giving none at all this year. I doubt that there will be any really large problems with the vaccine, but I also doubt any really large benefits. As I said, I think that this year’s version of this particular H1N1 is as “mild” as it will ever be and that getting sick with it this year will be good rather than bad. The chances that a new “flu shot” will be overwhelmingly effective are small.
I consider this, and most seasonal and novel influenza A vaccines, as “experimental” vaccines; they’ve only been tested on thousands of people for a period of weeks and then they’ll be given to hundreds of millions of people. Not really the greatest science when we’re in that much of a hurry. Yes, one can measure antibodies against a certain bacterium or virus in the blood and it may be associated with someone not getting sick, but there are very few illnesses common enough or enough ethics committees willing enough to do the right tests. That is, give 1000 people the real vaccine and 1000 placebo shots, expose all of them to the disease and see who gets sick. Seriously. I know it sounds terrible.
This is, obviously, a difficult public discussion because it touches on the concept of benefits and risks, again, of morbidity and mortality. Few public officials have the courage or inclination to present all facets of this difficult decision. I give vaccines to my patients every single day, but I always err on the side of caution. Implying that this is a dangerous new shot is not scientifically or statistically correct and represents hyperbole and even dishonesty on the part of the so-called “anti-vaccine” camp.
It sure isn’t “sexy” to suggest handwashing, good nutrition, hydration, extra sleep and so on. It’s not conventional to suggest astragalus, echinacea, elderberry and vitamin C. Adequate vitamin D levels are crucial, too.
I just think that giving this new H1N1 vaccine is not the cautious nor best thing to do.
Jay Gordon, MD, FAAP