Everyone’s talking about the swine flu these days, it seems. Whether it’s a discussion of the late vaccines, New York’s speculated defense because of the spring outbreak, or arguments over vaccination side effects, everyone seems to have an opinion. On the Today show the other day, I heard the decision whether to get vaccinated for the swine flu referred to as “such a personal decision.” Well, yes and no. It’s personal in the sense that any medical care is personal, but in several meaningful ways, vaccines are less personal than any other medical decision you might make. Vaccines aren’t just about you not getting sick — they’re about you not passing it on to other people who might also get sick. Vaccines are about public health.
I know that lots of people aren’t planning to get the swine flu vaccine when it finally becomes available, and I think that dialog is frequently missing a key point. Here it is: even if you’re not likely to die from the swine flu, you might come into contact with someone who is. And sure, those people should be vaccinated, but let’s be real. The vaccines are coming much later than anyone had hoped, and lots of people even in high risk categories haven’t had it yet. Even when the vaccines are widely available (probably several months from now), there will be a few people who for one reason or another get missed. And vaccines aren’t perfect.