Warnings of another swine flu outbreak have fanned the flames of a long-smoldering debate between government officials and citizens who oppose their role in vaccinations.
Earlier this month, the World Health Organization advised countries in the northern hemisphere to expect outbreaks as flu season hits in the next couple months. Swine flu, also called H1N1, was declared a pandemic by WHO, and is also considered the dominant influenza strain in many areas. In preparation for the upcoming flu season, WHO advised national governments worldwide to educate the public on the virus and prepare health care facilities for large numbers of patients.
Officials at the Flathead County Health Department said they are preparing for two strains of the flu this winter.
“We know we have seasonal influenza in our community and most likely we’ll have H1N1,” said Flathead County Health Officer Joe Russell
In order to be the most effective, the WHO Web site advocates vaccinations for vulnerable members of the population, including pregnant women, children and health care workers. Though most swine flu cases are mild, the main worry is a mass infection, according to the site, which could overwhelm hospitals and health care resources.
The idea of a mass vaccination, however, has some Flathead residents worried. Crowds of people gathered behind the KGEZ radio building on Highway 93 South for a four-day rally last week to rail against vaccinations, with a focus on swine flu.
“We’re just trying to educate people,” said Billy, an event organizer who refused to give his last name. “We don’t know what’s in the vaccine.”
KGEZ talk radio host John Stokes publicized and helped organize the rally. The event line-up included speeches, from doctors to politicians, who all oppose vaccinations.
Some crowd members contended the swine flu vaccine is another way for the federal government to control the population by causing mass hysteria. Others said it is a way for the government to keep American population numbers in check.
“No vaccine is good, and it’s time we wake up as a country,” Stokes said on his radio show, which was broadcast over a loudspeaker behind his station.
Fears of mandatory vaccinations were high at the rally, with several attendees specifically citing the Model State Emergency Health Powers Act, created after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Act provides the structure for local and federal governments to counteract bio-terrorism attacks on the United States.
In the Act’s description, the government may “provide care, testing and treatment, and vaccination to persons who are ill or who have been exposed to a contagious disease, and to separate affected individuals from the population at large to interrupt disease transmission.”
Rally attendees worried that the MSEHPA would be used to erode Constitutional liberties, including religious freedoms. Billy said he refused to get vaccinated for religious reasons, because God created him with an immune system that does not need help from humans.
“Don’t come and try to stick a needle in my kids or my wife,” Billy said, adding that most people are vaccinated because they are scared and pressured to do so.
But county officials said no flu vaccines are mandatory, nor will they be in the future. Russell, the Flathead’s health officer, said people who say otherwise are using scare tactics of their own.
“Certainly, we understand that everyone can make a decision,” Russell said. “That does not mean we’re not going to try to compel people to do it when they’re in an environment where it will be beneficial.”
Since Flathead County does not yet have the H1N1 vaccine, Russell said the health department is pushing for awareness and asking that people with influenza symptoms stay home. There will be seasonal influenza vaccination drives in October, Russell said, and the county is expecting the H1N1 vaccine to arrive in mid-October.
The county health department is strongly advising pregnant women, children, young adults in the 18 to 25 range and people with underlying medical conditions that may make them more susceptible to the virus, such as asthma, respiratory, cardiovascular or immunosuppressant diseases, to get vaccinated before flu season.
But Crissy Weibert, a registered nurse attending last week’s rally, said the public needs to be informed on vaccinations before submitting to a shot. Weibert filed a complaint against the county earlier this month to stop mandatory H1N1 vaccinations.
Weibert said she is concerned about the vaccine’s contents, which she is worried will spread the virus further.
Not everyone at the rally subscribed to the anti-vaccine point of view. Robert Brockie said he came out to see what the organizers had to offer and, in the end, was not convinced by the message he heard. While he believes the government is capable of wrongdoing, Brockie said he does not believe everything is a sinister plan to kill off the population.
County health officials said they are aware of the anti-vaccine movement and that department employees have received calls, letters and visitors decrying the department’s decision to distribute the H1N1 vaccine.
Billy insisted the rally was not an attempt to sway public opinion, or to force anyone into rejecting the vaccine. The point, he said, is to provide a look at the other side of the issue, so people can make an informed decision.
“I just ask for people to look it up themselves,” Billy said. “Don’t believe me – go read.”
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