WASHINGTON — More than 3,000 people a day have a heart attack. If you’re one of them the day after your swine flu shot, will you worry the vaccine was to blame and not the more likely culprit, all those burgers and fries?
The government is starting an unprecedented system to track possible side effects as mass flu vaccinations begin next month. The idea is to detect any rare but real problems quickly, and explain the inevitable coincidences that are sure to cause some false alarms.
“Every day, bad things happen to people. When you vaccinate a lot of people in a short period of time, some of those things are going to happen to some people by chance alone,” said Dr. Daniel Salmon, a vaccine safety specialist at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Health authorities hope to vaccinate well over half the population in just a few months against swine flu, which doctors call the 2009 H1N1 strain. That would be a feat. No more than 100 million Americans usually get vaccinated against regular winter flu, and never in such a short period.
How many will race for the vaccine depends partly on confidence in its safety. The last mass inoculations against a different swine flu, in 1976, were marred by reports of a rare paralyzing condition, Guillain-Barre syndrome.
Enter the intense new monitoring. On top of routine vaccine tracking, there are these government-sponsored projects:
•Harvard Medical School scientists are linking large insurance databases that cover up to 50 million people with vaccination registries around the country for real-time checks of whether people see a doctor in the weeks after a flu shot and why. The huge numbers make it possible to quickly compare rates of complaints among the vaccinated and unvaccinated, said the project leader, Dr. Richard Platt, Harvard’s population medicine chief.
•Johns Hopkins University will direct e-mails to at least 100,000 vaccine recipients to track how they’re feeling, including the smaller complaints that wouldn’t prompt a doctor visit. If anything seems connected, researchers can call to follow up.
•The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is preparing take-home cards that tell recipients how to report any suspected side effects to the nation’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting system.