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November 2nd, 2009
12:30 PM ET

Deciding whether or not to get the H1N1 vaccine

By Rebecca Leibowitz
CNN Medical Intern

I had H1N1. It started with a cough, which quickly progressed to a headache, body aches and a 102-degree fever. A rapid flu test came back positive, confirming my diagnosis. Although this nasal swab test for H1N1 is not very reliable, so much so that it is no longer being used, I had all of the symptoms of the flu. H1N1 was pretty much the only strain circulating in late August, so chances are very high that I did indeed have it. I spent the next three days isolated in my apartment, pumping my body with vitamin C and chicken soup. Then I was fine. I felt great and I was no longer contagious; I could go to class, to the grocery store and to the gym without fear of infecting others. To my friends, I was finally “swine-free.”

My decision whether to be vaccinated against H1N1 has been made for me. Since I most likely already had H1N1, and therefore have built up immunity to the virus, I will not be getting a vaccination. However, millions of Americans are facing the decision of whether to vaccinate themselves and their children against the novel influenza A virus.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends the following high-priority groups get vaccinated: pregnant women; people who live with or provide care for infants younger than six months; health workers; people aged six months to 24 years old; and people 25-64 years old with certain pre-existing conditions.

So, when my mom told me that her doctor recommended she not get the H1N1 vaccine, I was confused. As a chronic Lyme disease sufferer (who is well under 64) and a social worker who works with very young children, my mom fits into one of the high-risk groups. Why, then, did her doctor advise her against getting it?

As I later discovered, there are several reasons why people are apprehensive about getting the H1N1 vaccination. My mom’s doctor told her that he did not see the evidence that the H1N1 inoculation protects one from getting the virus, a concern he also raised regarding the seasonal flu vaccine. This contradicts what the CDC has been saying for weeks. CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden recently told reporters that the vaccine should work very well because “it is an excellent match with the strains of the virus that are circulating.”

There is also widespread concern about the safety of the vaccine. During the 1976 swine flu epidemic in the United States, those who received the vaccine for that strand of swine flu were proven to have an elevated risk of contracting Guillain-Barré syndrome. Guillain-Barré syndrome is a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of its nervous system. The most common complications from Guillain-Barré syndrome are breathing-related, and patients are often placed on respirators. The majority of people who contract the disorder recover, but it can be fatal.

The CDC says that it expects the H1N1 inoculation to follow a similar safety profile as the seasonal influenza vaccine, which has not been associated with increased risk of Guillain-Barré. Officials also say that this new pandemic vaccine is much “purer” than the 1976 inoculation. The expected side effects from the 2009 H1N1 vaccine are similar to those from the regular flu shot, including soreness or swelling at the point of injection, low-grade fever and body aches. The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration will be closely monitoring the safety of the immunization. The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System exists so that health care providers can report vaccine concerns directly.

And then there are those who think natural immunity is better and safer than any vaccine and are suggesting “swine flu parties” are the way to go – get yourself infected with H1N1 and your body will build up immunity. Most doctors and the CDC strongly advise against this method of protection.

What factors have influenced your decision whether or not to get the H1N1 vaccine? What advice has your doctor given you? Have you come to a decision whether to vaccinate you or your children?


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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.

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