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ConFLUsion: How to sort out swine flu facts from fiction

Consumer Reports News: October 09, 2009 04:55 PM

It seems that swine flu has infected YouTube. When I was on the Brian Lehrer Show recently, a caller claiming he was a pediatrician announced that the H1N1 (swine flu) virus was "man-made" and another caller urged me to look into this on YouTube because "college students are all over it...". Dangerous rumors like this outlandish conspiracy theory are causing concern all over the country and may be one reason that our swine flu poll found that 43 percent of Americans are on the fence about getting the vaccine. Other ridiculous notions floating around cyberspace include: "there is no swine flu", "a girl got the swine flu vaccine last month and died an hour later", "and you’ll be fine if you don’t eat bacon".

To clear up the misconceptions and give you the facts, we collected a number of rumors we’ve heard on our blog and elsewhere in the media about the swine flu and the swine flu vaccine:

Rumor: It’s better to build up your own natural immunity than gain immunity from a vaccine.

Fact: That was the top reason almost two thirds of those who were unsure or said they would not get their children vaccinated gave for not getting a flu vaccine last year. But that logic misses the whole point of immunity—avoiding disease. When your body is exposed to a virus, it creates antibodies that help fight the disease, When you’re given the vaccine your body makes antibodies that help prevent the disease. In other words, vaccines produce the same antibodies that an infection does, without the inconvenience and misery of having the illness or its life-threatening complications.

Rumor: I’ve never gotten the flu before.

Fact: More than half of respondents who skipped their flu shot last year said they just don’t get the flu. And 62 percent of parents who don’t plan on vaccinating their children reasoned that their kids rarely get sick. That’s just plain luck. The CDC estimates that between five and twenty percent of us get the flu each year, so we can go for years without getting the flu, and then, suddenly get a bad one.

Rumor: The seasonal flu vaccine also protects against the H1N1 flu.

Fact: Don’t count on it. The viruses that cause seasonal flu are substantially different from the virus that causes H1N1 flu. Therefore, the protective antibodies in the two vaccines are different as well. Some preliminary evidence released in early October by the British Medical Journal suggested that there may be some protection against H1N1 flu from the seasonal flu vaccine, but it’s very difficult to say for sure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently state that this years seasonal flu vaccine is not expected to offer any protection against the H1N1 flu strain. For full protection against both diseases, you need both vaccines.

—Orly Avitzur, M.D., medical adviser, Consumer Reports

For more facts and fiction go follow our swine flu coverage and recommendations .

Photo courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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