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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.

Fear No. 2: Swine Flu Vaccine Is Too New to Be Safe

People who worry about the safety of the H1N1 flu vaccine are doing just what medical experts have always told them to do -- weigh the real risks of any treatment against the real benefits you can expect.

How is that possible with a new vaccine? The answer is that the H1N1 swine flu vaccine is not as new as it seems.

If the H1N1 swine flu vaccine were a truly new product, it would have to go through years of safety testing before getting FDA approval. The fact that there already is an FDA-approved H1N1 swine flu vaccine doesn't mean corners were cut, says  Frieden.

"The concern is that the vaccine may not be safe, that corners may be cut, that short cuts may have taken, that it's a new or different vaccine," Frieden says. "In fact, none of that is the case. The vaccine is made in the same way it's made each year. ... It's made in the same production facilities with the same companies with the same methods as it is made each year. Hundreds of millions of doses have been given."

What's different about the H1N1 swine flu vaccine is that the viral particle recognized by the immune system -- the vaccine antigen -- comes from the "H1" part of the swine flu virus rather than the "H1" part of the seasonal flu virus. H1 can't give you the flu and is not toxic.

But what about the swine flu vaccine of 1976? As many people now recall, there was a flu vaccine in 1976 that might have had safety issues. That vaccine may have triggered a rare but devastating neurological syndrome called Guillain-Barre syndrome (GBS) in as many as one in 100,000 vaccine recipients -- and 44 million people got that vaccine.

"In the mid-1970s, when that swine flu vaccine was given, there were about 25 to 50 cases of GBS," Epperly says. "GBS is a demyelinating neuropathy. People don't know what that is, but it's left a lingering fear the 2009 H1N1 vaccine may do more harm than good."

It's still not clear what happened in 1976. Some scientists say the vaccine wasn't linked to GBS, others say it was. But there have been huge improvements in flu vaccine production since 1976. There's much better testing for contaminants such as the suspected bacterial contaminant in the 1976 vaccine. Viral particles are purified differently. And quality testing is greatly enhanced.

Moreover, the 2009 H1N1 swine flu is a very different bug than the 1976 swine flu. For one thing, it's causing a very real pandemic. The 1976 virus never broke out of the army base where it was first detected. Historians have called it "the pandemic that never was."

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