Vaccines: Crapshot 

Who benefits from flu shots?

Marian (not her real name) will get her flu shot next week—not that she wanted one. But without one, she’d be suspended from her job.

Marian is a healthy 59-year-old office worker at a local hospital. She has minimal patient contact. Earlier this fall, an employee newsletter announced that all hospital employees and volunteers were required to have flu shots by Nov. 30. In fact, since Feb. 24, 2010, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention have begun recommending “universal” flu vaccination in the United States. According to the CDC, just about everyone over 6 months old should get a flu vaccine every year.

Marian is distressed by this requirement. Growing up, she’d been vaccinated against childhood diseases. But, over time, she’s become much more conscious of what she puts in her body. “By getting a flu shot, I am putting a foreign substance into my body. Substances that can affect me in adverse ways and in ways that have nothing to do with the flu,” she wrote to hospital management, requesting an exemption to the requirement. “Some substances found in flu vaccines are: MSG, formaldehyde, antibiotics and mercury containing thimerosal and polysorbate 80.”

While Marian doesn’t argue this in her letter, many realize that flu vaccines are essentially a crapshoot. There are three types of the flu—A, B and C—and each has viral strains that constantly change. Types A and B are the culprits for the seasonal flu outbreaks that affect, according to government estimates, between 5 percent and 20 percent of the population.

Those who predict the virus each year are taking their best guesses as to which strains will plague each of Earth’s hemispheres. Back in January and February, epidemiologists from around the world got together and decreed this year’s vaccine would target the A/California/7/2009 (H1N1)-like virus, the A/Perth/16/2009 (H3N2)-like virus and the B/Brisbane/60/2008-like virus—a repeat of the 2010 vaccine, by the way. It’s certainly been the case where the flu that ended up opening a can of whoop-ass on the general population was not the one targeted by that year’s vaccine, making some view the flu-shot campaign as essentially a fire drill.

Educated guesses may be the basis for each year’s vaccine, but profits from making vaccines are a sure bet. Since 1997, after several deadly waves of avian and swine flu made names for themselves, flu-pandemic preparedness couldn’t be more en vogue. Now, drugmakers like Sanofi-Pasteur, GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis are raking in “vaccine ka-ching.” Governments have begun stockpiling vaccines should a pandemic sweep the land. Whether you wear a tinfoil hat or not, one can’t help but wonder if the new universal vaccine recommendations aren’t tied to keeping the drugmakers profitable and motivated to produce timely and abundant quantities of vaccines next year.

Marian’s not concerned with profit or underlying motives. She likes her job and appreciates her co-workers. She’s not trying to make waves. For her, the issue is personal and comes down to her belief that humans are equal to the task, in most cases, of fighting the flu. “My body was created to fight the flu virus on its own. If I get sick with a flu I’ve never had before, my body fights the illness and builds an immunity, naturally,” she writes. “Letting my body take care of itself as God intended is the way to be healthy.”

Marian is not alone in her reluctance. For whatever reason, health-care workers in general drag their feet when it comes to the flu vaccine. The CDC Website notes that less than half of all health-care workers report getting an annual flu vaccine. So the push is on to get doctors, nurses, EMTs and even office workers like Marian to show up for their shots. The Utah Department of Health now recommends that “all health-care delivery facilities in Utah implement a policy of compulsory annual influenza vaccination for all health-care personnel unless an organization has achieved a vaccinate rate greater than 95 percent by other means.”

It is hard to argue with the logic that if the vaccine suppresses this year’s flu, vaccinated health-care employees will be healthier and so will their patients, family members and community with whom they interact. The shots are even free to hospital employees.

But Marian resisted. The newsletter said exemptions would be allowed for “documented medical justifications or specific religious tenets that are in conflict with receiving the vaccination.” Unfortunately, Marian’s objection had nothing to do with religion. She’s not even particularly religious. She objected to the vaccine on “spiritual”—not religious—grounds, since she considers the immune system to be God-given. She didn’t want to be in the position of citing scripture and tenets of a religion she doesn’t follow.

But simply having a strong spiritual conviction failed to impress the exemption committee. They turned down her third request for an exemption in early November, saying, “An exemption based on religion requires documentation of a specific religious belief from a religious leader or a detailed statement of a specific religious tenet that is in conflict with receiving the vaccination. … You have not provided the documentation or information required for the exemption.”

Colleagues who knew of her situation referred her to biblical quotes to bolster her exemption request. Marian momentarily was tempted to use them, but ultimately didn’t want to lie about her beliefs. To keep her job, she will get her shot next week.

Resistance is flu-tile.

Twitter: @JerreWroble

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