Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Three things you need to know about H1N1 & the H1N1 vaccine

So there's a new vaccine to shoot up. How big a deal is the H1N1? What about the vaccine? I've heard so many quack stories, that I thought I better figure out what's going on. Here are the three things that I came up with.

1. H1N1 is a nasty flu with bad effects and specific targets. My doctor who just attended a seminar on it told me that it is 3 times as contagious as the regular flu. It's also got a lot more kick than a regular flu. http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/alert-alerte/h1n1/faq_rg_h1n1-eng.php reports 2,000-8,000 people die from the regular flu in Canada in a typical year. How does that figure compare to mortality projections of H1N1? The WHO's worst case scenario for Australia(http://www.canada.com/health/Australia+worst+case+scenario+H1N1+deaths/1797295/story.html)is 6,000 deaths/. Applying that ratio to Canada, we can expect around 10,000 Canadian deaths. (Australia is a good reference point because it already had its flu season. It is also a developed nation with health care facilities similar to ours.) But there is something else that we need to know. H1N1 has decided to snipe at some particular target markets (this is a marketing blog so I better incorporate some marketing lingo). Mortality strikes the following segments disproportionately hard: People aged 35-55, women, and people with a weakened immune system or prior respiratory problems (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis, diabetics, pneumonia etc). In short, the risk of contracting the violent flu is very high. The risk of dying remains very low.

2. The virus is nothing new and the vaccine is a lot less "rushed to market" than it appears. A lot of elderly people already have immunity to it because H1N1's sister made her rounds years ago. This is particularly good news from a vaccine point of view because we have a history of learning from its sister virus. The vaccine launch, therefore, while expedited- is not as rushed as it may appear to be. We do know that about 1 in 1,000,000 who take the vaccine will suffer a neurological setback (almost immediately upon receiving the shot) which takes about a year to recover from. This ratio is pretty consistent with regular vaccine shots. We also know the vaccine takes about 2 weeks to provide proper immunity, so if you are in a high risk group, get the vaccine sooner rather than later.

3. There are a lot of incentives to push for the vaccine. Pharmaceutical companies have a lot of money to make, politician do not want to be blamed about doing nothing if the virus spirals out of control, companies need their employees to be healthy because sick workers reduce output, media is in constant demand for news and a little hype never hurt ratings, health organizations get more funding if they are doing something relevant etc. etc. etc.

Now some medical folks would say, "If we all take the vaccine, the virus spread is less. If none of us take it, we have the tragedy of the commons". This is a legitimate argument. But somewhere in the discussion we have to revisit old-school common sense. You know, the stuff mom said. Wash your hands. Avoid crowds. Stay rested. Eat vitamins and a well balanced diet. Avoid kissing someone sick. Behaviors have always had a disproportionately large impact on staying healthy. This has been true from the operating room (e.g. sterilizing equipment) to the bed room. This will likely also be the case with H1N1.

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