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5 Reasons Some People Fear the Swine Flu Vaccine

Experts explain why many Americans say they won't get this year's H1N1 swine flu vaccine.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Why do half of Americans fear the H1N1 swine flu vaccine more than pandemic flu itself?

It's a problem that bedevils the huge effort now underway to offer the vaccine to all Americans who want it.

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"People have concerns about vaccination ... despite the clear message from all of us in public health and doctors throughout the health care field that vaccine is our best tool to protect against the flu," CDC director Thomas Frieden, MD, said at a news conference aimed at convincing U.S. residents to get their H1N1 swine flu vaccine.

That is going to be a tough sell. A Harvard University poll taken in late September showed that 41% of Americans say they definitely will not get the vaccine for themselves or for their children. And another 17% either don't know what they'll do or say they might not get the vaccine.

How can that be, when doctors, nurses, scientists, and public officials are virtually unanimous in urging people to get the vaccine -- for free or at low cost?

Vaccination is an emotional issue, says Emory University researcher Saad B. Omer, MBBS, PhD, MPH, who has intensively studied the phenomenon of vaccine refusal.

"We are a passionate people," Omer tells WebMD. "People feel strongly about certain things. I don't think people realize that vaccines are science-based products, and any criticism of and anything in favor of them should be based on science -- and that often doesn't happen."

The worst thing clinicians can do, Omer says, is to dismiss people's concerns. What are those concerns? According to polls and expert opinion, there are five major fears.

Fear No. 1: Getting Swine Flu From H1N1 Swine Flu Vaccine

Family doctors hear it all the time -- it's the No. 1 fear of flu vaccines, says Ted Epperly, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

"The public has a large fear that somehow flu vaccine gives people the flu," Epperly tells WebMD. "They have this fear they will get the disease this vaccine is aimed at preventing."

We've all heard this. Many of us have experienced it firsthand. Flu season comes, so you get your flu shot. A day or two later, you come down with "the flu." It had to be the flu shot, right?

Scientists know that just because two events happen in sequence doesn't mean one caused the other. But that isn't how it feels when it happens to you.

All the same, flu is caused by a virus -- and there's no virus in the flu shot. As for the FluMist nasal spray vaccine, there is a live virus, but it can't cause full-blown flu.

"There is no scientific evidence for -- absolutely no truth -- to the urban myth that vaccine will give you the flu," Epperly says.

So why do so many people report getting the flu after a flu shot? The answer is that the flu isn't the only flu-like illness going around during flu season. In fact, influenza accounts for less than a third of flu-like illnesses during flu season. We just tend to call them all "the flu."

But since people who are vaccinated don't get the real flu, they actually suffer less flu-like illness than people who don't get their flu shot or sniff.

"Some people ask, how do you know that what they perceive is not true?" Omer says. "But we do know flu vaccine doesn't cause flu because the better comparison is to look at what happens to people who get the vaccine vs. those who don't -- and there are far fewer flu-like illnesses among the vaccinees."

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