I haven’t written too much about H1N1. Partially, this is because as an avid reader and headline scanner, I suffer a bit from H1N1 fatigue. From local news reports to national updates to reminders and policy talk at my job, H1N1 is everywhere.
But it’s also because everyone seems to have an opinion about the H1N1 vaccine. And lately it seems I can’t go anywhere without getting a hearty dose of other people’s strong opinions about it in my face.
It’s a controversial topic for many, and I get that. I respect other people’s right to make their own decisions about their health. The thing is, I don’t need to agree, or be convinced my own decision about my health is wrong. So when I’m getting my blood drawn and stressed about getting to work on time because the line is long and my veins are wily and unyielding, I don’t really need a lecture from a health care professional on how flu shots are full of toxins and poisons we shouldn’t put in our bodies. (While flanked by posters advocating flu shots, by the way.)
You might be drawing my blood, but that doesn’t mean you know anything about my health or my personal beliefs, or how I might interpret your unsolicited “advice.”
The same goes for the forwards and attachments that appear out of the ether in my inbox warning me against the evils of vaccinations.
Because you know what? I would do anything for an H1N1 shot right now. For months every single doctor and nurse on my medical team has repeated the same mantra: I am absolutely high risk and should get the shot. The problem is, they just aren’t available yet. I have reason to believe I can get one in the next month, so if I can avoid infection until then, I will be in good shape.
At the same time, it is not as possible for me to read the headlines but stay on the sidelines. Students in my classes now have the flu, and each time I get an e-mail about a 104-degree fever I worry about them, and about how many of us were exposed.
I am not a paranoid person, and considering I spend 7-8 months a year continually sick, I am pretty used to infections. Generally speaking, I take reasonable precautions and reasonable risks with my health.
After I read this NYT article on parental views about the H1N1 vaccine, I knew I couldn’t resist the pull of breaking the silence any longer. In discussing society’s willingness to be vaccinated during twentieth-century epidemics like polio and smallpox, historian David Oshinsky is quoted as saying, “People had a sense of risk versus reward and listened to public health officials.”
That line really resonated with me, because that’s how my doctors and I have approached the H1N1 shot. For me, the risks of contracting H1N1 are much, much more severe than any risks of getting the shot. (And yes, I get the seasonal flu shot every year without incident, and since they are made the same way, I personally do not have fears about the production of H1N1 vaccines.) Vaccination and communicable disease prevention are some of public health’s greatest triumphs, in my view, and I am incredibly grateful modern medicine gives me and my sub-par immune system some protection.
After all, otherwise healthy people face serious complications from H1N1, usually in the form of secondary bacterial infections (pneumonia) that linger because the flu virus damages cilia in the respiratory tract.
I don’t have working cilia. I also have bronchiectasis, which increases the likelihood of bacteria and mucus festering in my airways, causing severe exacerbations. That sounds like an awesome combination, doesn’t it? I can catch a cold in September and not recover until March, and I’m not exaggerating. I’ve almost died from infections on multiple occasions throughout my life, and have spent weeks in isolation units of hospitals. There are few antibiotics left that can squelch the secondary bacterial infections I am so good at growing. As much as my friends joke I need to live in a bubble, I can’t.
But if there is a way for me to prevent contracting H1N1, sign me up. This is the decision that makes absolute sense for my individual circumstances, and it is one every medical professional I know espouses.
I know every person’s situation is unique. For example, I know that for patients with certain autoimmune conditions, the risks of getting a flu shot are very real and very serious, and I would never presume to convince them otherwise.
But that’s just it—these are the kinds of conversations that should take place between doctors and patients, between the people who know the most about an individual’s medical history and constellation of risks. When people do ask me, I am always honest about how I feel about the shot for me, but emphasize I am not a medical professional.
I’m not saying I’m unwilling to engage in dialogue or debate about this, but there’s a difference between informed views on subjects and imposing personal views on other people. I know vaccination in general is a hotly contested topic right now, and there are so many voices on both sides. I don’t want to start shouting. Honestly, I just want to get my shot and get through this winter.
So please, please don’t assume to know the particulars of my situation and tell me I am crazy to pump my body of toxins. No matter how strongly I feel about opposing viewpoints on this, that is not a productive way to have a conversation.
And the way I see it, I’d be crazy to turn down the chance to protect my dodgy lungs.