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Don’t fear swine flu vaccine

While watching the HBO miniseries about the life of President John Adams last year, there was one scene that gave me chills.

In response to an outbreak of smallpox, a young Abigail Adams summoned a doctor to the family’s home to inoculate herself and her children. He arrived with a gravely ill boy in the back of a horse-drawn carriage, and then proceeded to extract pus from one of the boy’s infected sores. Inside the home, Adams and her four children nervously waited their turn while the doctor cut open their flesh and placed the liquid into the wound. All of them survived.

Adams was a courageous woman, and at that moment, I thought that I would do the same for my children if faced with that choice. When it comes to health care matters, I’m not one to leave anything to chance. I am a proponent of vaccination, and after having my son, I made sure that he didn’t miss a single childhood vaccination.

And yet, when I heard that the H1N1 vaccine was making its way to San Luis Obispo County, I had a tinge of doubt about whether to put his name on the list for a vaccine clinic.

It wasn’t that I didn’t think my 2-year-old would not become ill from this potentially deadly virus. I knew that unless I kept him in a plastic bubble 24-7, that it was a distinct possibility.

Rather, I was overwhelmed by all of the information swirling minute-by-minute on the Internet, the TV news, and in newspapers and magazines about the swine flu pandemic — meaning the virus is widespread — and how the government was scrambling to make enough of the vaccine.

Sometimes, it’s easy to be consumed, and yes, even frightened by what you read and hear and difficult to sort fact from fiction. It’s also natural to be skeptical of the unknown and to want to protect your kids.

But after taking a deep breath and a step back, it was clear that the benefits of the vaccine far outweighed any risks associated with it. For starters, the vaccine — available in the live attenuated nasal spray as well as the inactivated injection form — is safe for most people (those allergic to chicken eggs should not get a flu vaccine, for example). It is also not unlike the seasonal flu vaccine that is available every year.

Dr. Trees Ritter, an infectious disease specialist practicing in the county and Santa Maria, said that had the H1N1 virus been identified six or eight weeks earlier, it would have been put into the regular seasonal flu vaccine.

And the method by which the vaccine was made is not new, he continued.

“That’s one of the myths I’ve heard … it’s so new that I don’t know whether I should get it,’’ Ritter said. “It’s new like the 2008 seasonal vaccine was compared to the 2007.”

The side effects, which can include soreness at the injection site, are minimal, he said. That’s a small price to pay for protection from a virus that can kill and that has disproportionately affected the young. The swine flu may have already claimed the lives of 4,000 people, including 540 children, according to the latest reports from the CDC.

“We don’t want to scare people, and we don’t believe scare tactics are a way to get people to do the right thing,” Ritter said. “But it’s important to keep them educated and informed about the risks.”

Dr. Rene Bravo, a longtime San Luis Obispo pediatrician who is vaccinating children at his office, says every parent has the responsibility to ask questions and do research on behalf of their children.

But he believes there’s really “no downside to vaccination.”

For those who choose not to vaccinate, they will be miserable if they get the flu, but it’s likely that if they have been in good health, they will make it through, said Bravo.

“As long as you realize that chances are, if it’s going through your household, you’re going to get exposed,’’ Bravo said.

Of course, parents are free to make their own choices. What is right for one family may not be for another.

But as I thought about it and talked to those who had received the vaccine, the more I was able to come to terms with my own fear. I decided to err on the side of caution for my child’s sake. So, on Thursday, without hesitation, I walked into the pediatrician’s office with my son for his shot. I am happy to report that he is just fine.