As the nurse poked the needle into my son's thigh, I expected to feel some kind of fear or worry. After all, I had heard alarm bells about the new swine flu vaccine. Supposedly, it hasn't been properly tested. It doesn't really work. It contains mercury. And there's a video on YouTube of a person paralyzed by the flu vaccine.
And yet, when the nurse was done, I felt genuine relief. The flu is on a rampage in 48 states, the CDC says, and the death toll is going up. Around the world, health officials are spotting devastating H1N1 outbreaks in countries like Ukraine where 71 people have died so far.
It may sound like hyperbole but there's a microscopic serial killer on the loose around the world. In the US alone, H1N1 has stolen the lives of 114 children so far. It's already in our neighborhood of Los Angeles. And it's just getting started with peak killing season expected in the colder months ahead.
So what can we do? What should we do? For adults, it just takes one swine flu shot to get some protection. For kids, it takes two doses, according to the CDC. In a few seconds the other day, my five-year old was half-way there.
And yet, look at the polls and listen to talk radio. Fully 38 percent of parents say they're unlikely to give permission for their kids to be vaccinated at school, according to an AP Poll. More specifically, 72 percent of parents are worried about the side effects.
These concerns are inevitable but they underscore one of the problems we face when evaluating risk. Especially when we're bombarded with information (and opinion), experts say our brains simply aren't wired to balance risk vs. benefit and make sound decisions. Simply put, too many of us worry about the wrong things. We get distracted by noisy voices and exceptions to the rule. And we don't take actions that can save our lives.
If you're planning to skip the swine flu vaccine this year (or the seasonal flu shot, for that matter), experts say, you're probably engaging in this kind of faulty reasoning. You're giving credence to suspicion and ignoring a clear and present danger. You're dwelling on the possibility of problems and disregarding the certainty that H1N1 will kill many thousands of people.
Moreover, you're neglecting some basic facts: The new vaccine has been carefully tested for safety; it's based on the same science used for decades in all kinds of vaccines; an elaborate monitoring system is scanning for side-effects; and thimerosol, the mercury-containing preservative, is only used in miniscule amounts (and versions of the vaccine are available without it).
What happens when people make decisions based on fear, not facts? If you're putting off the flu shot because of the remote chance of a serious adverse reaction, then what about the rest of your life? Consider a few examples of the problematic logic mustered by flu shot dodgers:
• Hospitals: If you were stricken with appendicitis today, you'd probably go straight to the hospital for emergency abdominal surgery. Right? What if you discovered that complications arise three percent of the time during or after this kind of routine surgery? Seems like a relatively small risk, right? Now what if you find out that as many as 98,000 Americans die every year because of preventable medical errors? Would this staggering statistic lead you to avoid the hospital or doctors? Nope. [Or would you refuse to go to the hospital because there are sick people there? Or because there's a risk of catching a Super Bug? Again, I doubt it.]
• Aspirin: What about a more benign affliction like a splitting headache? Makes sense to reach for the aspirin, right? What if you found out that thousands of people die every year from complications related to taking aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)? That won't happen to me, you might say, and you'd still pop the pills.
• Home: What about getting out of bed in the morning? More than 6,000 people die every year in falls at home, according to the National Safety Council. And yet, you don't stay under the covers all day. You still skip down stairs, climb ladders and splash in the rain on the sidewalk - three danger spots where many accidents occur.
Yes, life is risky. Often, we choose to overlook scary facts every day and go about our lives. And even when there are simple, easy ways to minimize dangers, we frequently don't bother.
Sure, every medicine has a downside. But when it comes to protecting your family, leading experts insist, the benefits of the H1N1 vaccine vastly outweigh the risks.
Nothing is ever foolproof, but when the swine flu breaks out in your state, city or neighborhood, ask yourself one question: Do you want to do everything possible to stop a serial killer from entering your home and possibly taking what you love most? If the answer is yes, then as soon as you can find a some vaccine, roll up your sleeve.
For more information about surviving the flu (or swine flu), please visit The Survivors Club Swine Flu Support Center.
For more information about keeping your family healthy, please visit ParentsAsk.com,
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