Wednesday, November 4, 2009

To panic or not to panic: An interview with the swine flu (part II)

When the H1N1 story erupted in the media a little while back, I wrote a short Q and A post to give a scientific perspective on the topic. After that I really didn’t give much thought to the H1N1 flu. Since I don’t have a television at home and never listen to the radio, I live in a kind of media void. It’s glorious in there, let me tell you. Unfortunately, I was recently at a relative’s place and watched the news. I was shocked to see an endless stream of panic-inducing warnings and news about the H1N1, so the microbiologist in me decided to revive the topic here on Scientific Chick with the latest scientific information. So here you have it, a second exclusive interview with Mr. Swine Flu himself.

Scientific Chick: Mr. Flu, thanks for accepting to come back on Scientific Chick. How have you been? It seems you are gaining in strength and giving more severe illnesses.

Swine Flu:
I’ve been well, thank you, but please notice that I’ve changed my name to H1N1. As you know, we are now in the regular flu season, so I am quite busy going around and infecting people. However, unfortunately for my plans to dominate the Earth, I have not been inducing an increasingly severe flu. It may seem so because with more people infected, the percentage of seriously ill patients becomes more apparent, but I’m still the same guy.

SC: How do you feel about our new H1N1 vaccine?

I find it quite sad. You see, the vaccine is composed of my virus brothers, completely killed and inactivated. When talk of the vaccine started, I had a glimpse of hope that maybe, just maybe we could infect humans through the vaccine, but alas, that’s not possible. There is no chance a vaccine containing my dead relatives will give you flu.

SC: Surely with a vaccine so new, there is some chance of things going awry for us humans?

I wish! It is often thought that because this vaccine is new, it is untested and unsafe. Unfortunately, because I am so similar to my seasonal cousin, the H1N1 vaccine has been produced the same way regular flu vaccines are produced every year. Health organizations (like the NIH) around the world have conducted rigorous clinical trials that show the vaccine is both safe and effective. It’s been licensed by all the governmental agencies and even though I tried to be very sneaky showing up unexpectedly like I did, no shortcuts were taken.

SC: At least most formulations of the vaccine contain thimerosal, so if we don’t catch you, you’ll at least have the consolation that we’ll suffer from mercury poisoning and all the associated conditions.

H1N1: Well, that would be nice, but you are grossly exaggerating. While it is tempting to blame thimerosal (a mercury-derived preservative) for a number of conditions, there is just no scientific evidence for any sort of suggestion that thimerosal is unsafe. Since the hypothesis that thimerosal causes autism broke out many years ago, scientists have been working very hard to prove or disprove that link. Interestingly, some of the best, largest, most well-controlled and unbiaised clinical studies came out of this controversy, all concluding that there is no link. The irony is that there is more mercury in a can of tuna than in any vaccine.

SC: So really, if I wanted to give up vaccines for fear of thimerosal, I’d also have to give up ahi tuna tacos? That’s just not a possibility. What about adjuvants in vaccines? How do you feel about those?

I like adjuvants, because since they boost your immune response to the vaccine, less inactivated virus is needed per dose, which means less deaths in my family. That being said, whether you receive a vaccine with or without an adjuvant depends on where you live. In the USA, no adjuvants will be used. In Canada and some European countries, the vaccines contain adjuvants. Adjuvants are not new, and they also have a good safety track record. I hear a lot of concerns about squalene being used as an adjuvant, but you find squalene in olive oil.

SC: I hear a lot of discussions about Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Should we worry?

Guillain-BarrĂ© Syndrome (GBS) occurs when your body’s immune system turns against its own nerve cells, and this leads to paralysis. If caught early enough, it can be reversed. And yes, vaccines are among the many risk factor for GBS, at a rate of about one in a million. Guess what else is a risk factor for GBS? Me! The nasty ol’ flu. Pick your odds.

SC: Are you hiding in my tasty pork tenderloin and bacon?

No. You can only catch me through coughing or sneezing droplets from someone who is already infected, or through touching something contaminated and then letting your hands get to your face before they get to a sink to be washed.

SC: Should I wear a mask if I want to avoid you?

Also a no. The Public Health Agency of Canada doesn’t recommend wearing surgical masks to avoid catching me. While this may sound counter-intuitive, there is actually scientific evidence that shows that this is not an effective way to prevent flu transmission in the general public. People tend to use the masks incorrectly, contaminate themselves when putting the mask on or taking it off, and increase their risk of infection by trapping me near their mouth. That would really make it too easy for me.

SC: H1N1, thank you.
While it was lovely having you, I hope this was the last time.

Thank you. Did you want to come closer? I have a secret for you…

This plush H1N1 virus is safe to cuddle with!


Autism and vaccination-the current evidence. (2009) Miller L, Reynolds J.
J Spec Pediatr Nurs. 14(3):166-72.

A Novel Influenza A (H1N1) Vaccine in Various Age Groups. (2009) Zhu FC et al.
N Engl J Med. Oct 21.

The H1N1 flu pandemic. What you need to know. (2009)
Mayo Clin Womens Healthsource. (11):4-5.

The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention –
Public Health Agency of Canada –

One response to “To panic or not to panic: An interview with the swine flu (part II)”

solaceinthecity said...

Great interview! Very informative :)

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