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Health officials scramble to counter H1N1 myths Add to ...

Does the H1N1 vaccine give you the flu? Will it cause autism or Gulf War syndrome? Is it a cover for a sinister government plan to kill people? Is a plot by big pharma to sell drugs, make money and rule the world?

The conspiracy theories around medicine and science range from ridiculous to downright scary. And as the second wave of the H1N1 pandemic influenza virus entrenches itself in Canada and vaccination clinics swing their doors open next week, public health officials are rushing to debunk the myths about a virus that has sickened hundreds of thousands and a drug that will protect others from getting unnecessarily ill.

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Canada's chief public health officer, David Butler-Jones, came out swinging Friday against the claims of those opposed to the vaccine. The federal regulator approved the drug this week, saying it is safe and effective. Canadians have a choice: Immunize themselves or face a real risk of disease, Dr. Butler-Jones said.

"We risk losing ground if we start doubting … or taking the myths as fact," he said. "Immunization is the only thing which will stop the pandemic and prevent however many people from needlessly becoming ill."

Canada, which has ordered 50 million doses of the swine-flu vaccine from GlaxoSmithKline, embarks on its largest ever immunization campaign next week. But on websites and in online comments, some have raised questions about the vaccine. The hope among public health officials is that common sense will prevail.

They stressed that the vaccine doesn't contain a live virus so you cannot contract influenza from it.

Canada's vaccine uses an adjuvant, which consists of squalene (shark liver oil), DL-alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E) and polysorbate 80 (an emulsifier also used in ice cream). An adjuvant is a chemical product that boosts the immune response. There were claims that squalene, used in the anthrax vaccine, was to blame for Gulf War syndrome. But the evidence just wasn't there. Claims that mercury in vaccine causes autism have also been debunked.

Public health experts acknowledge there will be people on the fence over receiving the H1N1 shot. But Perry Kendall, B.C.'s health officer, assured Canadians in a conference call this week that the government is looking out for their safety.

"We've gone through extensive safety tests with this vaccine. … We would not be recommending a vaccine that we did not think was safe. Will that convince absolutely everybody? No, I don't think it will. But I hope the number of people who remain skeptical remain small," he said.

Federal health officials say the virus is in its second wave because there are more people testing positive for H1N1 and being admitted to hospital with flu-like symptoms. Sales of anti-viral drugs have also increased at pharmacies.

At least 5,000 people worldwide have died from H1N1, including 86 Canadians.

In the United States, reports of more deaths, especially among children, have resulted in lineups at vaccination clinics. At the same time, H1N1 vaccine production in the U.S. has lagged behind projections. It won't be widely available until mid-November.

Kumanan Wilson, Canada Research Chair in public health policy at the University of Ottawa, said he expects more Canadians will want the vaccine when they hear of more illness in the country. But long lineups or any negative reports of the vaccine could change things.

"It won't take a lot to move in one direction or another," Dr. Wilson said.

Dr. Kendall in B.C. remains more hopeful. With widespread disease in his province, residents are asking him about the vaccine and appear to want it, he said.

"I think we'll see steady demand. I'm hoping we won't see major lineups. I think we'll see more than we usually expect in a flu year," he said.

Follow on Twitter: @calphonso

 

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