Common Colds and Common Stupidity

I have a cold. It’s not a particularly bad cold. I’ve got by on a couple of aspirin a day and lots of cough lollies, rather than having to dose myself up to the eyeballs on neurofin plus or something more powerful as I often do. Nevertheless, I’m rather miserable, so if this piece seems unduly negative, feel free to lay the blame there.

Despite the mildness of this particular rhinovirus (as i it probably is) it’s still managed to make four days fairly unpleasant so far, and could well manage to ruin a fifth.So if there was a vaccine against rhinoviruses, I would totally take it. Indeed, the complaint that scientists are so busy fighting the diseases that actually kill you that they skip over ones that make you miserable, like the cold, is one I’ve heard many times since I first encountered it as a child in Pam Ayers poetry.

The thing is, not that long ago I was interviewing a scientist who was indeed making progress towards understanding rhinoviruses. He said it was quite possible that within a few years we would have identified parts of the rhinovirus that do not change between different types, allowing us to produce a vaccine of lasting value. Not all upper respiratory tract infections are caused by rhinoviruses, but most are, so the toll of winter misery would drop substantially. Except it wouldn’t.

The scientist said there was no point trying to mass vaccinate the population, even if it was possible, because people wouldn’t step up. He reeled off figures about how few people get ‘flu shots each year – even though influenza can actually kill you. I can’t remember one of them exactly, but apparently less than half the health workers – people who are both exposed to ‘flu frequently and are in danger of transmitting it to someone vulnerable, get an injection. If people won’t get vaccinated against the ‘flu, they’re hardly going to get it against colds.

The only point of a vaccine against rhinoviruses, he said, was for people who have asthma or other conditions that mean colds can be a much more frightening prospect. These people might get the shot, and that could save some lives.

Now when I was a child getting the ‘flu shot was the terror of the year. It hurt like hell at the time and my arm would ache for days afterwards. However, my parents always forced me. Once I was an adult I stopped going, until one year my job made me. To my surprise I didn’t even feel the injection, and my arm hardly hurt afterwards. I’ve been back pretty much every year. And while I’ve had plenty of colds, I don’t think I’ve had ‘flu since.

Why don’t other people do likewise – particularly since it’s so cheap in Australia. Presumably many reasons. Some are allergic to the eggs in which the vaccine is made, but that’s tiny numbers. Others are more scared by the fact that one in a million people have adverse reactions than the much higher risk of dying from the virus. Some think that because the vaccine is not fully effective it can’t be worth getting. Some are simply too disorganised, or procrastinating.

No doubt some are also misinformed, having heard the scare campaigns about other vaccines. But it is frustrating. Besides the fact that the cost-benefit analysis for the individual is pretty clear, there’s the little matter of herd resistance. If I don’t get the ‘flu I can’t pass it on to someone else, who might have a better reason than I for not getting themselves inoculated.

Of course, if the vaccine against colds only needed to be taken once, rather than annually, there might be higher uptake. Still, it seems to me that anyone suffering with a cold, (particularly those who try to engender greater sympathy by calling it the ‘flu” when its not) should ask themselves. “Would I be one of the people who would get a shot against this if I could?” And if the answer is no, maybe they should stop complaining. Stop complaining about the disease, about scientists spending too much time worrying about diseases like malaria that mostly affect poor (read black) people.

Oh, and I guess if people are this illogical about things that are clearly in their long term interest – where long term means 3-6 months – I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised they’re easily fooled by scare campaigns against doing anything about bigger, but genuinely long-term, issues.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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