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All You Ever Wanted to Know about Swine Flu

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Do I NEED to vaccinate myself or my children?

family lining up for swine flu shots

Ronda Kaysen: Ask any mom who's tried to get the swine flu vaccine lately and you're bound to hear tales of fruitless calls to doctor's offices and endless promises that more doses are imminent. With health officials urging us to line up for the precious H1N1 shot and critics drumming up fears of scary side effects, it's no wonder the swine flu pandemic has turned into pandemonium.

In an effort to sort fact from fiction, momlogic sat down with Amanda Aldridge, a Centers for Disease Control spokesperson, and Gregory Dworkin, chief of pediatric pulmonology and medical director of the Pediatric Inpatient Unit at Danbury Hospital in Danbury, Conn. He's also the founding editor of Flu Wiki, a website about flu. Here's what they had to say:

momlogic: Why is the government so concerned about swine flu? They don't take these measures with regular flu.
Amanda Aldridge and Gregory Dworkin: Usually, people over 65 are the most vulnerable to the flu. But swine flu targets young people, particularly children and pregnant women, meaning normally healthy people are at risk for getting seriously ill. Remember the flu is a serious disease that lands about 200,000 Americans in the hospital every year and kills about 36,000 people. This year, it's targeting kids and pregnant women.

ML: Is swine flu more deadly than regular flu?
AA/GD: Most people who get swine flu will get a mild case, but some people will get very sick. Also, since it's a new virus, no one is immune to it, which means a lot more people might get it than a normal year. So, horde your sick days.

ML: What's the difference between the flu and a cold?
AA/GD: Swine flu comes on fast, usually in three to six hours, and is accompanied by muscle aches, chills, a fever, a dry cough, tiredness, a headache, and severe chest discomfort. A cold rarely causes a fever, and usually arrives slowly over a few days. Typically, cold symptoms include a runny nose, congestion, a "productive" or wet cough, a sore throat, and sneezing.

ML: Many pediatricians don't have the vaccine; what should parents do?
AA/GD: Here's the rub: health officials want you to get the shot, but they can't make enough doses fast enough. The answer? Be patient. If your doctor doesn't have the vaccine now, she'll have it soon. You can also go to and find a flu vaccine locator in your area. Eventually, supply will meet the demand.

ML: Are some people getting vaccinated before other people?
AA/GD: Yes. Some people are at the head of the line: pregnant women, people who live with or care for newborns, healthcare workers, young people between the ages of 6 months and 24, and people who have health disorders or compromised immune systems.

ML: Why is it important for pregnant women to get vaccinated?
AA/GD: Pregnant women are at high risk for complications from the flu. As of August 2009, 100 pregnant women had been hospitalized in intensive care, and 28 had died since the outbreak began in April. If you are pregnant, it's important to get the vaccine.

ML: The flu vaccine comes in different forms; does it matter which one I take?
AA/GD: You've got three choices: the FluMist nasal spray, shots that are packaged individually without preservatives, and shots that are packaged in larger batches with a preservative called thimerosal. Pregnant women, children under 2, and people with compromised immune systems should not take the nasal spray because it contains a live virus. As for fears one will contract the flu from the vaccine, momlogic expert Dr. Alanna Levine says not to worry. "Many people are afraid of a 'live flu vaccine,'" says Dr. Levine, "but they gave their children the MMR and chicken pox vaccines, which are live. You cannot get the flu from a live vaccine, as it is a weakened form of the virus that does not cause illness."

ML: Can my kid get autism from the shot?
AA/GD: No. Some of the shots contain thimerosal, a preservative that contains trace amounts of mercury, which critics worry can cause autism and other developmental disorders. Health officials insist the preservative is safe. "There have certainly been many, many studies with thimerosal and they have not found any type of link to autism or developmental disabilities," said Aldridge, adding that parents can request thimerosal-free doses, which are becoming available. Dr Levine says doses with thimerosal will likely be available before those without, so parents should not wait for the thimerosal-free vaccine. H1N1 is affecting children NOW, so parents should vaccinate as soon as possible with the vaccine that is available first. In addition, the live nasal spray doesn't contain thimerosal.

ML: Is there anyone who shouldn't get vaccinated?
AA/GD: Yes. Infants younger than 6 months old can't get vaccinated. And anyone with an egg allergy should speak with a doctor before getting vaccinated since the vaccine is grown in chicken eggs or those who have had an allergic reaction to the flu vaccine in the past.

ML: Is there any benefit in waiting to get the vaccine?
AA/GD: No. The sooner you get vaccinated, the sooner you'll be protected.

ML: Some people say herd immunity will help people in areas that had outbreaks last spring, like New York City. Is that true?
AA/GD: It's unknown. Areas that had outbreaks in the spring are seeing cases now. Everyone should get the shot.

ML: How long does it take for the vaccine to become effective?
AA/GD: The vaccine takes 10 to 14 days to become effective.

ML: Does my child need more than one shot?
AA/GD: Moms with little ones, gear up for two trips to the pediatrician. Children under the age of 10 need two doses, a month apart. After the first vaccine, they're somewhat protected, but still at risk for swine flu.

ML: Some critics say this is a new vaccine that hasn't been properly tested. Is that correct?
AA/GD: No. Every year the flu shot is updated for a new flu strain; this year is no different. "It's the exact same vaccine as the seasonal flu," said Aldridge. "It's really just a different strain of flu being put into the same components."

ML: What should a parent do if a kid at school comes down with it?
AA/GD: Don't panic. If your child is healthy, send him to school. If he's sick, keep him home.

ML: What should a parent do if her kid gets the flu?
AA/GD: Keep in touch with your child's pediatrician. The main thing is to control fever and keep your child hydrated -- and keep your child home.

Dr. Levine also notes that your child should be checked by a pediatrician if they're lethargic, dehydrated, have had a fever for more than five days, or if their symptoms seemed to be getting better and then they worsened again. You should take your child immediately to the ER if they have difficulty breathing, blue color around the lips, profound irritability, or severe vomiting.

ML: Are there other ways to stay healthy?
AA/GD: Yes. Wash your hands and wash them often. Keep your distance from sick people. If you cough or sneeze, use a tissue or sneeze into your elbow. Don't rub your eyes, nose, or mouth. If you feel sick, stay home.

ML: Why is it called swine flu, anyway?
AA/GD: H1N1 virus was dubbed swine flu when it first turned up in Mexico last spring because it had elements of a swine flu in it. The pork industry was less than thrilled with the moniker, and has been trying to shed it ever since. The actual H1N1 strain has elements of human, bird, and swine flu in it, which is a very unusual combination. Exactly how the virus evolved is still unclear.

ML: Will this year's vaccine be good for swine flu next year?
AA/GD: No. Next year, you'll need to get the flu vaccine again, just like every year.

ML: Will swine flu be a problem next year?
AA/GD: Swine flu will probably replace the seasonal flu. It will probably be incorporated into next year's flu shot. Usually after 18 months, the pandemic is gone. However, seasonal flu is still a serious illness. "People need to respect seasonal flu a little bit more," said Dworkin.

Bottom line -- should you and your kids get the vaccine? If you are in a high-risk group (pregnant, caring for or living with a newborn, a healthcare worker, have a compromised immune system, or your kids are 6 months to 24 years) -- then yes. But speak to your doctor first.

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