You'd think that after 14-year-old Destinee Parker, a Montebello Elementary/Middle School student with no underlying health conditions, died this fall from the H1N1 virus, city parents would be rushing to get their children vaccinated. And with news of the vaccine's scarcity, long lines at clinics offering the shot and continued reports about how widespread the virus has become, you'd think parents would be eager to take advantage of the city's offer to set up immunization sites at their kids' schools.
Yet days before a citywide schools vaccination program is set to begin, just 1,800 of the 80,000 consent forms the city school system sent home have been returned. You could get a better response than that for a field trip to Fort McHenry.
The seeming reluctance of parents to embrace the vaccine as a potential lifesaver points up a continuing problem with the government's campaign to inoculate everyone considered at high risk for contracting swine flu: Many people apparently remain unconvinced that the vaccine is safe or effective. An Associated Press poll last month showed that more than a third of parents don't want their children vaccinated, citing fears that the vaccine is relatively untested or that it may do more harm than good.
But parents aren't doing their children any favor by not getting them vaccinated. Although most cases of swine flu have generally been mild and victims recovered within a few days on their own, the illness has also proven deadly for some children and adolescents. More than 1,000 kids have died nationwide from H1N1 since the start of the epidemic, and half of the cases that were serious enough to require hospitalization have been among children.
Doctors still don't know why the disease has such devastating consequences for some people while leaving others relatively unscathed, and there's no way of predicting which kids who come down with the virus will suffer life-threatening symptoms. Given that uncertainty, vaccinating everyone at high risk of contracting the disease - children, pregnant women, people with chronic health conditions and health care workers - is an instance of the proverbial ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure.
The H1N1 vaccine was developed the same way regular seasonal flu vaccines are made, and it was manufactured by the same companies. It is important to note that the injectable swine flu vaccine does not contain a live strain of the virus. It is impossible to get the swine flu from a swine flu shot. While many parents remain anxious about vaccines in general - and this one in particular, since it was developed and tested relatively quickly - that shouldn't be a reason to leave children unprotected against a potentially deadly disease that strikes unpredictably.
Just ask Destinee Parker's parents which risk they'd rather take - the vaccine or the disease. We'll wager they wouldn't have to think about it long at all before coming up with their answer.
Should all children get this vaccine? No doubt, they should. There is a live attenuated nasal spray vaccine available to them if they are terrified of needles. The vaccine is no different from the regular flu vaccine, and thus far no serious side effects have been reported.
TV and radio personalities who are not doctors or scientists do a terrible disservice when they rant about the potential dangers of the H1N1 vaccine arising from government incompetence. Wake up and smell the coffee. These folks will do nothing to save your children when they are laid low by this clever and lethal virus. Parents should set their fears aside. After all, everything new we attempt in life carries some risk. For this vaccine, the benefits far outweigh the risks for most children. Sign the forms, return them and relax that your kids will be protected.