“Doctor, Do You Believe In The Flu Vaccine?”

January 26, 2010

Each fall when the flu vaccine becomes available I am asked, on a fairly regular basis, “Doctor, do you believe in the flu vaccine?”  Although I am used to being asked that question, I always find it somewhat strange.  I know the person asking the question is really asking me whether or not I think they should get the flu vaccine, or whether or not I think the flu vaccine is effective, or whether or not I think the side effect profile of the vaccine is too high.  But, invariably, they ask if I “believe” in the vaccine.  Nobody would ever ask if I “believe” in the flu, since science has established that the flu exists and that people can get very sick from it.   Not “believing” in the flu would be tantamount to not “believing” that HIV causes AIDS.  It is a matter of scientific fact and not belief (although there are still people out there who actually don’t believe that HIV causes AIDS).  Likewise, it is not really a matter of belief as to whether or not there is a vaccine that can protect against the flu.  It exists, and it is available.

However, the question is being asked and it does have importance since it underscores a strange bias that exists in a segment of the community toward vaccines.  It is a bias that comes from a vocal and hyped “belief” that vaccines can cause all sorts of medical problems, from autism to actually giving people the diseases they are meant to prevent.    It is a bias that comes from the “belief” that an immune system that is bombarded on a daily basis with all sorts of microbes and antigens, somehow can’t deal with being exposed to a few specific antigens in the form of vaccines, even if this targeted exposure is meant to result in a specific protective immune response.   In the age of the internet, these “beliefs” are given credibility in the form of blogs and websites.  On-line, almost everything looks authoritative.  And so, there can be scientific evidence that autism is not linked to vaccinations, and yet, the question will continually be posed on-line and in the lay press.  Pediatricians deal with this issue on an almost daily basis.   Belief systems are important.  I just wish that when it came to science, facts would always trump beliefs.

There is no doubt in my mind that immunizations would be high up on any credible list of the most significant medical advances in the history of mankind.  Their importance is irrefutable.   So, the next time you have a question about the effectiveness of a vaccine or about potential side effects, ask about those things directly.   If you don’t really understand why it is important for you or your child to receive a specific vaccine you should ask about it.   If you are concerned about taking a vaccine that has just been approved, you need to have a conversation with your doctor about that.   If you are unclear as to what the difference is between a live attenuated viral vaccine and and a killed viral vaccine, please ask.  Those are good questions and they are worthy of real discussion.  With the answers you will be able to decide, with the help of your doctor, what is right for you.

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