Q. Is there a vaccine for the H1N1 virus (swine flu)?
A. Yes. The H1N1 vaccine became available in early October, 2009. It is expected that by the end of October, 40 million doses will be available. The federal government has purchased and will distribute about 250 million doses in total.
Q. How is the vaccine administered?
A. The H1N1 vaccine is available as a shot or as a nasal spray. The injection consists of dead viral cells, while the spray contains living but weakened cells, called an "attenuated live virus." As a result, the spray is more effective at building immunity but may be more dangerous for some patients. Therefore, it is only recommended for people between 2 and 49 years of age, who are not pregnant. All others should get the shot.
Q. Who should be vaccinated against the H1N1 virus?
A. Everyone can and should seek the vaccination if possible. Although specific distribution decisions are made at the local level, the CDC recommends priority be given to those in the following high-risk groups:
- Pregnant women
- People who live with or care for children younger than 6 months of age
- Healthcare and emergency medical services personnel
- Persons between the ages of 6 months and 24 years
- People 25 through 64 years of age who are at higher risk for 2009 H1N1 because of chronic health disorders or compromised immune systems
Once demand in those groups has been satisfied, the next highest priority group is healthy adults between 25 and 64.
Q. How many doses will I need?
A. People ages 10 and older will need only one dose of the vaccine. Children between 6 months and 9 years of age will need two doses. The second dose should be administered about four weeks after the first. Children younger than 6 months should not be vaccinated.
Q. How long will it take to develop an immunity?
A. It should take about seven or eight days for your body to be immunized. For children, who need two doses, it will take until a week after the second dose - approximately five weeks from the first.
Q. Is it safe for pregnant women to get the vaccination?
A. Yes, with one proviso. Pregnant women should only get the injection, and not the nasal spray.
Q. Can breastfeeding mothers get a swine flu shot?
A. Yes. In fact, it may even help pass the antibodies on to her baby.
Q. I've heard that the swine flu vaccine contains mercury. Is that true?
A. Some forms of the vaccine contain a mercury-based preservative. Although it has not been shown to be harmful to pregnant women or children, there is a mercury-free alternative available. Ask your doctor.
Q. Does the H1N1 vaccine also protect against the seasonal flu?
A. No. People should also still receive their usual annual flu shot, particularly those in high-risk groups: the elderly, the very young, and those with underlying health conditions. In fact, based on reported cases so far, young kids are more susceptible to the seasonal flu than to swine flu, so it's important to stay up to date on vaccinations.
Q. Can I be vaccinated for the H1N1 and seasonal flu at the same time?
A. It depends what type of vaccine you take. Generally, the shots can be administered at the same time. However, nasal spray doses should be administered at least two weeks apart, so that your immune system has adequate time to develop antibodies for each strain of the virus. Ask your doctor for more specific guidelines that take into account your family's ages and health conditions.
Q. Are there any side effects to the vaccine?
A. For the most part, you can expect similar side effects to those from the seasonal flu vaccine: soreness at the site of the injection, headache, muscle aches, nausea, or fever. Most side effects will abate within one to two days. If you have severe allergies of any kind, especially egg allergies, inform your doctor before getting the shot.
Q. How do I know this vaccine is safe? Wasn't it rushed to market?
A. The H1N1 vaccine was developed using the same processes that drug companies use to make the seasonal flu vaccine every year, and in a comparable timeframe. The New York Times quotes CDC director Dr. Thomas R. Frieden as saying, "We have cut no corners. This flu vaccine is made as flu vaccine is made each year, by the same companies, in the same production facilities with the same procedures, with the same safety safeguards."
Q. Should I skip a vaccination if I've already had the swine flu this year?
A. Only if you have laboratory proof that you did, indeed, have the H1N1 virus. Otherwise there's no way to be sure, and you should get vaccinated. Additionally, if you have had the swine flu already this year, it's still a good idea to get protected against the seasonal flu. Immunity to one does not protect against the other.
Q. What else can I do to avoid catching the H1N1 virus, or helping it spread?
A. Use common-sense precautions. Avoid coughing or sneezing into your hands - do so into your arm, instead. Wash your hands often, especially after coughing and sneezing (soap and water are preferable, but alcohol-based hand sanitizers are also acceptable). If you do get sick, stay home from work or school until you've recovered.