by Reb Akiva at Mystical Paths
A little technical due to necessary background. I get to the point in the bottom third.
We are commanded to believe in Hashem and have faith, yet also required to actively protect our health (as well as avoid taking risks with our lives).
While in the last 15 years a few drugs have been developed that do treat viruses, most viral infections cannot be treated. The only treatment has been vaccine, which 'teaches' the body's immune system how to defeat the virus before one actually gets it - thereby providing one with protection against it.
Except for our grandparents, few of us know of the terrible diseases of just 3 generations ago. Out of every 100 children, 23 died to one disease or another, 8 went blind, 9 went deaf, 6 were paralyzed. The scourges of this time are unknown today...diphtheria, tetanus, poliomyelitis, smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, meningitis, pertussis, and polio. Diphtheria was one of the top 10 causes of death at any age.
The US population in 1900 was 76 million, and the number of people getting one of these life threatening diseases was 1.1 million PER YEAR.
Every single child went through MULTIPLE of these diseases (and others) during childhood. 1 in 4 children died by age 10.
These viral diseases were defeated with vaccines. (Bacterial diseases were also a risk, and they were defeated with antibiotics.)
These diseases aren't gone, they're just RARE as most people are vaccinated against them.
Now vaccines are pretty wonderful in preventing those life threatening and disabling diseases! But vaccines aren't without risks...
3 in 100 children will have a minor side effect (fever, swelling, minor illness), 1 in 1000 will have a serious side effect and may require hospitalization, 1 in 10,000 will have a debilitating side effect, and 1 in 100,000 will die from vaccination.
Those are serious numbers, but a lot less than 1 in 4 DYING from the disease. For all the major diseases above, there's not much question of statistically going for the vaccine over the potential for the disease. HOWEVER, several factors have recently changed the equation...
- First, people have demanded more convenience, and the manufacturers have responded. Instead of shots, people wants oral or nasal vaccines. These forms may require live viruses or new chemicals to maintain, introducing higher risks.
- Second, manufacturers have taken the same techniques and applied them to non-life-threatening / non-debilitating diseases and lifestyle diseases. For example Chicken Pox and HPV (Human Papillomavirus).
- Third, the creation of viruses for changing diseases such as the flu and pneumonia provide only seasonal benefits.
In the first case, new techniques may introduce new risks. Large samples and many years (5-10) are required to truly determine possible side effects on a large population basis.
In the second case, these are not required for life preservation. So the question is not life or disability versus side effect risk - it's convenience versus side effect risk. Further, the vaccines may provide less protection than a case of the disease - meaning it may need to be periodically repeated throughout one's life increasing the risk. (For example, the Chicken Pox vaccine has a 5-10 year protection rate. Yet the greatest life threat of chicken pox is to pregnant women. Meaning any female child getting this vaccine will HAVE to repeat it prior to entering their child bearing years.)
In the third case, the diseases targeted are not typically fatal to normal healthy adults or (not young) children. So again, the risks of side effects have to be weighed against the inconvenience of the diseases (unless in the risk group) versus the side effect risk.
Net net, every vaccine carries a risk. In the case of childhood diseases, it's pretty clear the risk of the disease far outweighs the risk of the vaccine.
(Certainly if you're a person who's had a side effort or a child with one, you probably disagree. But I had a similar discussion with someone who refused to wear a seat belt because they had a parent killed in a car accident because they couldn't remove their seat belt during a car fire [Hashem ya'a'zor!] Statistically it pays to wear the seat belt even though in a small number of cases the seat belt can hurt chances of survival versus the majority of the time when it helps.)
So what about the H1N1 Swine Flu vaccine?
I recently received a somewhat hysterical email going around the Jewish community about possible harm from the H1N1 flu vaccine. I just spent several hours doing some serious research and here's my best understanding...
EVERY flu is life threatening and kills hundreds of thousands around the world every year (37,000 per year in the US). BUT most of those affected are elderly or have other diseases weakening them.
So what about H1N1? H1N1 statistics are hard to come by. My calculations say it seems to be killing about 1 in 215 people who get it. Official pronouncements say 1 in 2000 who get it. Unlike the regular flu about 50% of the people getting H1N1 seem to be healthy adults, pregnant women, and healthy children.
Normally, as a healthy adult or healthy older child, the risks associated with a vaccine make it not worth getting a flu vaccine.
But H1N1 presents an unusual profile. Death rates are higher and include the otherwise healthy. BUT, the vaccine has been RUSHED and safety tests have been short term. Several models contain unusual ingredients, others (the nasal type) are actually serving up live (weakened) virus!
Net net, what's all that mean. Here's my advice...
Seasonal flu vaccine - If you are in a normal flu risk category including elderly, pregnant, chronic illness, get it. Millions get this vaccine every year and it's proven to be very safe. I took this vaccine this year myself.
H1N1 flu vaccine - I can't give you any intelligent advice here. There's too many factors and not enough information at this time to make an informed decision. The risk level of H1N1 is still a guess, and the risk of vaccine side effects for this vaccine and it's different variants is also a guess.
If you're not in an area where the H1N1 Swine Flu is at high infection levels, I'd wait a bit to see both the disease statistics and the vaccine statistics - as with both numbers going up quickly right now we're certain to get improved data in relatively short order. That's what I plan to personally do.
But I'm not a doctor or an epidemiologist. Consult YOUR physician about YOUR health, check WHICH type of vaccine is available in your area (as some types seem to be riskier than others), and ask Hashem to give you the wisdom to make the right choice for YOU and your family.
An interesting side note. A study recently came out showing high levels of Vitamin D(3) consumption significantly reduce flu risk (Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, Volume 14, Number 2, Summer 2009). As Vitamin D levels normally fall in the winter months, it may be worth taking Vitamin D(3) supplements for it's potential flu protection value. Take the article and consult your physician.
May Hashem keep all of us safe and healthy. Remember, Tefilah, Teshuvah, and Tzedakah lessen the decree!
BS"D - בסיעתא דשמיא