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Shaken Faith in the Flu Vaccine?

They account for some of the great victories in the history of public health, but vaccines have had a rough time of it lately.

First there was the federal government's agreement in March to compensate an Atlanta family whose daughter developed autism after receiving a set of routine childhood shots. That decision fueled ongoing speculation that childhood vaccines can cause autism.

Then we learned that the mumps vaccine turns out not always to provide complete and lasting protection against this potentially dangerous disease -- one many of us figured we didn't have to worry about any more.

And now this: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report Friday saying that this year's influenza vaccine was mismatched to the strains of flu that ended up circulating this year, a situation that likely led to a higher-than-usual incidence of the illness and related deaths -- even among people who had been vaccinated.

Public health officials express concern that the vaccine's poor performance this year may discourage folks from getting vaccinated next year.

Who could blame folks for being a bit discouraged?

Flu-vaccine production is a long process, so scientists need to figure out nearly a year ahead of time which three strains of flu virus to protect against in the coming flu season. (Efforts are underway to develop a universal influenza vaccine that would protect against all strains, but despite promising recent developments, we're not quite there yet.)

This year they guessed wrong. For the 2008-2009 season, they've taken the unusual step of starting from scratch: None of the three strains next year's vaccine will protect against is included in the current season's vaccine.

But there's no telling whether that gamble will pay off.

The risk is that parents will remember the few horror stories (the 14 children who did get vaccinated this season, only to die of influenza after all) and overlook the massive benefits vaccination has -- and can continue -- to bring.

Look at the bigger picture, though: While some people in privileged Western countries have become skittish about vaccinating their kids, those who really know the dangers of contagious illness welcome these preventive measures: 62 million children, adults and elderly people in 44 countries and territories throughout the Western Hemisphere are expected to receive free vaccines against leading infectious diseases as part of the sixth annual Vaccination Week in the Americas, which is taking place this week. Read more here.

I'll be dragging my kids off to the pediatrician this fall, as I have done every year.

And keeping my fingers crossed. Not because I'm worried they'll be hurt by the vaccine, but because I hope that it will target the right strains of flu.

P.S. to the reader who commented on my April 9 blog about vaccine safety: While it's true that some influenza vaccine does still contain the ethylmercury-containing preservative thimerosal (which some suspect may cause neurological problems, including autism), the CDC notes that manufacturers are working to phase it out. Read more about thimerosal here. Thanks for writing!

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  April 21, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Family Health  
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