The UK starts vaccinating people against swine flu today; in the US and Australia, vaccination has already begun. Can we be sure that safety hasn't been compromised in the race to test and produce the vaccine? Didn't vaccination hurt people during the last big swine flu scare? And do the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks? In this excerpt from our in-depth feature Swine flu: fact versus fantasy – to be published in full next week – New Scientist sorts the myths from reality.
This flu isn't always mild and unlike ordinary flu it mostly kills young people, including the healthy (see diagram). You might be one of the unlucky few. And even if you only get the mild version yourself, you might infect a family member or friend who then becomes severely ill. So doing nothing is risky, even if the odds are low.
What about the vaccines? People's nervousness about swine flu vaccines is understandable. In 1976, after the death of a US army recruit triggered fears of a repeat of the 1918 pandemic, around 48 million Americans were given a swine flu vaccine. Of these, 532 developed Guillain-Barré syndrome, a paralytic condition caused by rogue antibodies attacking nerve cells. Most people recover from Guillain-Barré, but not all; 25 died after 1976 and others suffered lasting damage.