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Parenting: Flu Emergency? It Could Be Worse

“Piggy,” a daughter’s new boar-bristle hairbrush, sends my youngest running, shrieking at the thought of its real-animal, scratchy touch. I don’t dare tell her about 2009 and the swine flu…

Mayor Thomas Menino’s declaration of a public health emergency this week reminded me of the last time we took the flu so seriously, during the 2009 pandemic.

On an October Saturday that year, my family stood in line for 2-1/2 hours with one Red Sox player, his wife and kids, and dozens of others at our pediatric practice to receive the H1N1 vaccine.

At the end of that line lay nasal mist, thankfully, no injections. Because a month before, our children had already received the seasonal vaccine. And they needed another dose of H1N1 spray one month after the first to provide protection. We made three doctor’s visits just for the kids' flu vaccines that year, but I was relieved to do it.

The unfortunately named swine flu, which contains genes from human, avian, and pig viruses, was a new strain to which children in particular had no immunity in 2009. The new H1N1 was documented in March 2009, and the global pandemic was not declared over by the World Health Organization until August 2010.

In June of 2009, well after Boston’s flu season is normally over, the city was still closing individual schools for a week after absenteeism signaled a lot of sick kids. By the end of that month, 15 public schools had each been closed for a time to control transmission of the flu.

My own conversion in favor of flu shots began after I contracted the virus two years in a row: pregnant with a toddler at home, then the following year with the toddler and nursing baby. It was a near-death experience ­– as in, I felt like I wanted to die. For weeks. But with those two little kids to take care of, that wasn’t an option. I went to the hospital once when I thought I was dehydrated. But they couldn’t get a needle in me and sent me home. I’m lucky that I’ve never been seriously ill, but as a pregnant and nursing woman, it took a long time to fully recover from the flu.

Along with good anti-infection practices such as keeping your germs to yourself, Mayor Menino is encouraging everyone who hasn’t been vaccinated yet to just do it. Early Wednesday, only Upham’s Corner Health Center in Dorchester was left on the city’s calendar of flu clinics, but by the evening, more than a dozen other locations were added, mostly for Saturday, Jan. 12. Check with your primary care physician or area pharmacy as alternate sources.

The Centers for Disease Control has been expanding the age range of those for whom flu vaccine is recommended, so that since 2006, its recommendation is that, with few exceptions, everyone over six months should be vaccinated annually. 

Just two days before Menino was talking about the ten-fold increase so far this year in flu cases, and the four deaths of seniors in Boston attributed to the flu, the Boston Globe published a comprehensive story about the limits of flu vaccine effectiveness. Add that kind of knowledge to the skepticism parents have, after the lingering effects of the discredited link between vaccines and autism, and you may not want the flu vaccine after all. But the Globe's article points out, as does the CDC, that getting the vaccine is still the best way to protect against the disease and its complications.

See the CDC’s web page about safety of this year’s flu vaccine:

http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/vaccine/general.htm

And their page of general flu vaccine facts:

http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/keyfacts.htm

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