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Published: Friday, 10/16/2009

Better for children to get H1N1 vaccine than not

THE parental panic button has been pushed. Not about any of the usual mischief linked to child-rearing, but about a new flu strain that hits kids the hardest. And any day now the H1N1 virus, also called the swine flu, could come to a school or neighborhood near you.

The information hitting the public is scary, with some experts insisting the flu strain won't be as dire as predicted or that most infections will be mild with the same symptoms as the seasonal flu.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 1 million people have already contracted swine flu but their cases weren't recorded because they didn't seek treatment. If the usually proscribed bed rest and fluids seems to work well on H1N1, why worry?

One reason: H1N1 has proved fatal in young, healthy kids without underlying medical conditions. The picture of Max Gomez still haunts me. He had just begun kindergarten when he developed sniffles and a fever. His mom treated him with plenty of fluids, medications, and TLC. And the 6-year-old seemed to be getting better the day before he died. Doctors think he succumbed to swine flu after suddenly developing dangerous symptoms, including bluish fingers and extreme fatigue.

When at least 76 U.S. children have died from the virus and the vaccine to combat it is not widely available yet, what's a parent to do? Don't panic, but that's easier said than done when the material on H1N1 indicates it could be more complex than first believed and kids have been catching it more easily than seasonal flu.

It's getting so every time your kid sneezes or coughs or complains of a sore throat, you wonder if that's all it is. And as prudent as hand-washing is as a preventive measure against the spread of germs, there are just too many opportunities for school kids to get sick from each other.

Their hands touch everything. Then their fingers are in their nose more than not, or rubbing their eyes, or in their mouth, making them vulnerable to whatever bug is going around.

H1N1 is serious, and though authorities have tried to walk a fine line between making sure parents are vigilant without raising undue alarm, people are flooding emergency rooms with flu symptoms, afraid that they have H1N1.

A recent Associated Press poll found that fully one-third of parents surveyed said they would not get the swine flu vaccines for their child. Why chance possible side effects on a perfectly healthy child? One reason: Max Gomez. According to Dr. Nathan Litman, chief of pediatric diseases at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore, in New York City, about 30 percent to 40 percent of kids between 5 and 19 get influenza every year and sort of become the epicenter of the flu epidemic in their communities.

They spread it at home and school and to high-risk people. So for the benefit of the young, who are especially susceptible to this disturbing H1N1, as well as the benefit of others, the CDC suggests getting both the seasonal flu vaccine and the swine flu vaccine.

Better to be prepared before the swine flu is in full force in your community because by then it may be too late. And the panic you may have felt at the onset of this pandemic will be small compared to what you could experience with a severely ill child.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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