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Health experts say the swine flu vaccine is safe and effective, but many parents still think it's too risky for their kids

Thousands of American kids are getting sick from the swine flu epidemic, which has hit months before the traditional flu season.

But parent interest in the new vaccine to protect their children hasn't kept pace.

As the swine flu vaccine rolled out this week in Hillsborough County schools, the first of many school-based vaccination clinics planned for the Tampa Bay region, polls suggest that just over half of parents want to get their children vaccinated. The rest don't want it or remain on the fence.

That resistance is frustrating health officials as they work to overcome a laundry list of objections, ranging from disbelief that the flu is really such a big deal to concern that the vaccine could be worse than the disease.

South Tampa mom Joni Jankowski says she carefully researched the required immunizations before approving them for her children, 5-year-old Andrew and 7-year-old Anna. She feels reluctant about the swine flu vaccine, which is voluntary.

"You always hesitate to get something right when it comes out," said Jankowski, 38. "Unless people start dropping dead left and right in my neighborhood, I might wait for a year and see what happens."

• • •

Public health experts are vigorously defending the safety of the swine flu vaccine. They stress that it was produced using the same methods as the seasonal flu vaccine, which has a long safety record. Each year, scientists plug in the specific strains of flu that they expect to see circulating. For the swine flu vaccine, the same process was applied using the H1N1 virus that surfaced last spring.

That may not be enough to assuage fears of side effects or questions about the need to vaccinate. An Associated Press poll this month found that more than a third of parents didn't want their children vaccinated.

Hillsborough's numbers look somewhat more favorable to the vaccine. In a telephone survey conducted this week, 24 percent of parents told school officials they don't plan to get their children the swine flu vaccine. Fifty-five percent of the responding parents said they wanted it.

• • •

There are numerous reasons why some parents are opting for less effective approaches to flu prevention, like frequent hand washing and cleaning children's nasal passages with Q-tips.

For starters, many parents still are getting used to a government recommendation to give the seasonal flu vaccine to children ages 6 months through 18 years.

And in recent years, a small but vocal group of parents opposed to childhood vaccines have polarized the topic. Leading medical experts are stepping up efforts to let parents know there is no proven link between autism and vaccines, which are well known to protect against deadly childhood diseases.

Some people say they fear other potential side effects of the vaccine. That anxiety is being fueled by unsubstantiated claims of illness pegged to flu vaccines that are making the rounds on the Internet and among cable talk show hosts, who are gladly feeding the controversy.

Health officials acknowledge they can't guarantee any vaccine is 100 percent safe in all cases, but the alternative can be worse.

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention point out that 36,000 Americans die every year of the seasonal flu. Already, they are seeing swine flu hit otherwise healthy young people and pregnant women particularly hard, causing hospitalizations and deaths. Globally, swine flu has killed more than 4,700 since last spring, according to the World Health Organization.

"You say the word vaccine these days and some people get a little twitchy," said Dr. Glenn Morris, director of the University of Florida Emerging Pathogens Institute. "Unfortunately, these fears have been stoked by people whose science is not good. Vaccines have been one of the great success stories of public health over the past 50 years."

• • •

Morris noted that vaccines don't just protect the people who get them. UF researchers are testing mathematical models that suggest communities could curb the spread of seasonal flu if 70 percent of students are vaccinated. Morris said they are close to that rate for the seasonal flu vaccine in Alachua County schools.

But getting there took an extensive campaign, complete with public service announcements, billboards and a tremendous amount of personal outreach to convince so many families that vaccinating children from the seasonal flu can protect their parents and grandparents too.

It could be the older relatives who raise yet another objection to the new vaccine: the specter of the 1976 swine flu scare. That virus never became much of a threat, but the vaccine was associated with a small risk of a rare, paralyzing condition called Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Experts stress the current swine flu vaccine is different, produced with modern methods and rigorously tested before its release. That has been enough to assure parents like Courtney Ippolito, 26.

"I think it's safe," said Ippolito, who is pregnant, placing her at higher risk of complications from swine flu. "I told my doctor as soon as it comes out and is available to me, I'll take it." She'll get her toddler son Andrew vaccinated, too.

But another South Tampa mother, Joan Arnone, is leaning against the swine flu vaccine for her daughters, ages 11 and 4. She knows people who have gotten swine flu, and their cases have seemed mild, so she's not convinced it's necessary.

"It's almost like they came out with the vaccine so quickly, that you question it," said Arnone, 43.

Then there is the angst of getting 4-year-old Nicole to roll her sleeve up for a vaccination.

"To send my kid in and say that she's got to get a shot at this age is not a good scene in itself," she said.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.

Taking your questions

Dr. Juan Dumois, director of the pediatric infectious disease program at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, will answer your questions Friday from 1 to 2 p.m. at blogs.tampabay.com/health. Go to the blog today to give us your questions for Dr. Dumois.

Stay updated on flu

Visit tampabay.com/swine-flu for the latest news on the swine flu, answers about the H1N1 flu from the director of the Pinellas County Health Department and links to related Web sites.

FAST FACTS

Tips to prevent the spread of flu

Everyday prevention measures recommended by the CDC:

. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Then throw the tissue away.

. Stay home if you get sick.

. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub (with at least 60 percent alcohol) if soap and water aren't available.

. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth, which is how germs spread.

Health experts say the swine flu vaccine is safe and effective, but many parents still think it's too risky for their kids 10/21/09 [Last modified: Thursday, October 22, 2009 10:24am]

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