Op-ed: Reasons why health care workers need to receive the H1N1 flu vaccine

The following op-ed was published on October 5th, 2009 in The New York Times’ Room for Debate blog.

Not only are patients asking me whether they should receive the H1N1 influenza vaccine, but it’s a question doctors are asking themselves.

Recent polls say doctors and nurses may be more resistant to getting vaccinated than most Americans. The British Medical Journal published a survey showing that less than half of health care professionals are willing to receive the vaccine, while a poll from the Nursing Times found that only 37 percent of front-line nurses plan to be vaccinated against H1N1 influenza.

This is consistent with data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicating that 60 percent of American health care workers traditionally don’t get vaccinated even against the seasonal flu.

Reasons for refusal include a fear of side effects, including the perception that the dead virus contained in the injectable form of the vaccine can cause disease. This is false, as is the belief that physicians and nurses are “too healthy” to become infected.

Indeed, unimmunized health care workers infected with the flu can show only mild symptoms, yet still have to potential to infect others. Also, a recent study showed that those infected with the H1N1 virus can be contagious for up to eight days after the onset of symptoms, significantly longer than strains of seasonal flu.

Some also fear the manufacturing process, saying that the vaccine was “rushed” to production. This is another myth, as the CDC reports that the H1N1 vaccine is expected to have a safety profile comparable to the seasonal flu vaccine. This makes sense, as both vaccines are produced in a similar fashion.

There are over 11 million health care providers working in our hospitals, nursing homes and medical clinics. And with studies suggesting that 70 percent of doctors plan to continue working despite being sick with flu-like symptoms, tens of thousands of contagious workers can potentially infect patients who are already sick, or predisposed to flu complications. We owe it to our patients to receive the H1N1 influenza vaccine.