The end of the Spring Festival also marks the end of flu season for another year, but it leaves behind once more a fierce debate about the merits of vaccination.
Chinese authorities reported that this year’s flu outbreaks have been less severe than last year when unusual strains led to epidemics in Beijing and other cities. However, Hong Kong experienced a particularly bad winter, with hospitals struggling to cope. leading to authorities reinforcing the key messages: wash your hands, avoid crowds where possible… and that vulnerable individuals such as children and the elderly should be vaccinated.
The debate about the general merits of preventive vaccination is, as far as the vast majority of scientists are concerned, concluded. The risks of vaccination are much lower than the risks of preventable childhood diseases, and arguments linking injections with autism have been shown to be dependent on spurious evidence. Properly-conducted large scale research has found there to be no correlation at all between autistic spectrum disorders and the MMR vaccine. Furthermore, scientists say, parents who do not immunize their family are putting other children at risk as well as their own.
However, many see the flu vaccine as a different issue. Parents who would not dream of denying their child the standard program of vaccinations draw a line at undergoing the risk of an injection for influenza. They point out that the vaccine only protects against certain strains of flu, and that its effectiveness varies from year to year as the viruses evolve.
In part, this is because of misuse of the term “flu” in the English language. People often speak of having “a touch of flu” when they really have a heavy cold. Influenza is a killer, with Hong Kong reporting seven deaths in the space of five days this year, and several children critically ill in hospital.
Arguments about the importance of immunization assume that the vaccines are properly stored and administered. In 2018, a third vaccine scandal in as many years alarmed many parents about the safety of the program in China. It should be pointed out that the vaccines in last year’s case were not dangerous in themselves, though they were believed to offer inadequate protection against deadly diseases like diphtheria.
It can be difficult for parents to wade through the available information and misinformation. The Internet can be particularly unhelpful, with a British study blaming social media for spreading myths and alarmism on the subject. We recommend, as always, that if you are concerned you should seek the advice of a trusted medical professional.