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Risk the shot or risk the flu

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Public health officials want people to get vaccinated for swine flu. But only half of parents nationwide say they plan to get their kids vaccinated. Many say they're worried about vaccine side-effects. Julie Grant reports some government policies may have inadvertently made people concerned about vaccine safety.

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Julie Grant
Reporter and Producer

Transcript: Julie  Grant, October 28, 2009

Public health officials want people to get vaccinated for swine flu. But only half of parents nationwide say they plan to get their kids vaccinated. Many say they're worried about vaccine side-effects. Julie Grant reports some government policies may have inadvertently made people concerned about vaccine safety:

Some of the schools near where I live in Ohio have absentee rates of 20%. Kids are reporting flu-like symptoms. Some schools are even closing down to keep more people from getting sick.

At the same time, a study by the Harvard School of Public Health finds that only 51% of parents nationwide plan to get their kids vaccinated against the new swine flu.

The vaccine has a serious public relations problem.

One reason people are worried: thimerosal.

Thimerosal is a preservative used in vaccines. It prevents bacteria and fungus from contaminating vaccine bottles. Thimerosal is almost half mercury, by weight. And that makes a lot of people nervous.

As a precaution, it was taken out of most American vaccines about twenty years ago. But it’s still used a lot in flu shots.

Lynn Gregor has two little children. She’s been leaning toward getting them vaccinated for swine flu. But she just heard about thimerosal, and she’s concerned.

“Because even if it’s a teeny, tiny bit of mercury, which is what that product is connected with. Because a teeny tiny bit of mercury can have a big impact.”

The Centers for Disease Control says the type of mercury in thimerosal is different than the kind that’s in thermometers. Lots of people think thimerosal is linked with increased autism rates. But public health officials say science does not bear that out.

“There has been no credible evidence of a harm that’s linked to thimerosal.”

That’s Donn Moyer. He’s spokesman for the Washington state Department of Health. It’s one of six states that have passed laws making it illegal to give young children and pregnant women flu shots that contain thimerosal.

Moyer says the health department didn’t ask for the law. It says thimerosal is safe. But, politicians wanted to appease people concerned about thimerosal.

The state of Washington’s concern is not about the actual safety of thimerosal, it’s about the public’s perception of thimerosal.

“The goal was to maintain public confidence in vaccine programs and to encourage parents to have their kids vaccinated.”

But now that the new swine flu is here, Washington is suspending its law. The swine flu seems to be hitting young children especially hard, and Moyer says infants and pregnant women should get immunized – even if the only shots available contain thimerosal.

“We don’t see any credible risk of health effect from the thimerosal and it could protect against a very, very serious influenza infection.”

That seems like a mixed message to parents. And it’s part of the confusion between the science and politics of this issue.

(Fox news music intro)

Anchor: “We are tracking H1N1 and health officials here in the US…”

On this Fox news report Dr. Kent Holtorf is labeled an “infectious disease expert”, and he warns people against the vaccine.

Holtorf: “And it’s been shown to cause autism in children with mitochondrial dysfunction. It’s controversial, though highly implicated.”

Anchor: “Would you give it to your kids?”

Holtorf: “I definitely would not.”

Some Right-leaning commentators are sharing their suspicions about the vaccine from the government. And, on the Left, one natural health newsletter put out a special edition warning against vaccination.

This all leaves federal health officials with a big job to do: use the preponderance of science to convince people that swine flu is potentially more dangerous than the vaccine and thimerosal.

The mother we talked to - Lynn Gregor - wants to protect her kids from swine flu, and she’s thinking about getting them vaccinated.

“If they don’t get it, I’m going to be really worried all winter. I’m going to be really concerned.”

But when Gregor hears so many people are opting out of the vaccine – and that some states actually ban thimerosal most of the time - she’s not sure what to do.

For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

Copyright © 2009. The Regents of the University Of Michigan. Used with permission.

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