Yellow Fever Vaccine

by Leslie Godfrey in

T-Minus 220 Days Until Castoff

July 23, 2015

I suspect you will see a sub-theme emerge for this blog:  can an anxiety prone, neurotic individual quit her job and go sailing?  When we first consulted our friendly nurse at Passport Health, she provided us with handouts on all of the vaccines we would be getting.  The risks associated with each of the vaccines were, of course, listed.  Complications for most of these vaccines are limited to allergic reactions to the compounds used to deliver the vaccine, except for Yellow Fever.    

With the Yellow Fever Vaccine, 1 in 125,000 people experience a "severe nervous system reaction", and 1 in 250,000 people experience life threatening, severe illness with organ failure.  More than half of the people who suffer this side effect die.  DIE!?  Hold the phone, here, people!  1 in 250,000 is not nearly a large enough spread for my comfort.  To put this in perspective, the Japanese Encephalitis vaccine simply says "Severe reactions to the JE Vaccine are very rare, estimated at less than 1 in a million doses."  

Dutifully, then, I fret about this issue for months.  I conducted additional research on the internet (never wise) only to learn that there have been at least 52 cases of bodies completely checking out within 3-5 days of receiving the vaccine.  I learned that they think it may be caused by a thymus disorder or a genetic abnormality in the vaccine subjects.  I don't have a thymus disorder, and there is no easy way to test for the genetic abnormality, if that is even the cause in the first place.   In sum, there isn't a way to prevent it or even know what factors cause it.  So if you want the Yellow Fever Vaccine, you are just going to have to play Russian Roulette with an injection needle.  

What about the odds of getting Yellow Fever v. dying due to organ failure from the vaccine? 

Yellow Fever Symptoms According to the CDC

  • The majority of persons infected with yellow fever virus have no illness or only mild illness. 
  • In persons who develop symptoms, the incubation period (time from infection until illness) is typically 3–6 days. 
  • The initial symptoms include sudden onset of fever, chills, severe headache, back pain, general body aches, nausea, and vomiting, fatigue, and weakness. Most persons improve after the initial presentation. 
  • After a brief remission of hours to a day, roughly 15% of cases progress to develop a more severe form of the disease. The severe form is characterized by high fever, jaundice, bleeding, and eventually shock and failure of multiple organs.

Not to worry, people.  I have my "go-to" for safety rationalization close at hand:  statistics on deaths in car accidents.  So handy!  We all drive so much every day.  Many of us consider it the most normal, most unavoidable of all risks we face in a day.  We merrily hop into our aluminum, steel and plastic death traps, ignoring the fact that we are rather likely to have our face smashed between our windshield and that comfy, temperature controlled, leather covered headrest.

Risk of Dying next year: 
Transport Accidents
Pedestrian				1 in 47,273
Pedal Cyclist				1 in 375,412
Motor Cycle Rider			1 in 89,562
Car occupant				1 in 17,625

Even more poignant for the crowd who asks me when I'm having kids:

Lifetime Risk of Death in Childbearing
(includes risk per pregnancy and likely number of pregnancies.)
In North America			1 in 3750
In Europe				1 in 1895
Lain America & Caribbean		1 in 150
In Asia					1 in 105
In Africa				1 in 15

SOURCES: - all records from 2002

This argument drives my father nuts.  He works in the smelter of a mine, and has worked in heavy industry all his life.  There, the philosophy is that all accidents can be prevented.  They require all their workers to memorize the following: TRACK:  (T)hink through the task; (R)ecognize the hazard; (A)ssess the risk; (C)ontrol the hazard; (K)eep safety first.  To a certain extent, this is right.  Accidents are preventable, and you should be doing every thing in your power to think, engineer safety solutions, protect yourself, and prevent problems.  In the end, though, sometimes the only preventative measure that can be taken is to just not undertake the task.  And when your choice is to not undertake the task, or accept some level of risk, what do you do?

As Andrew tells me all the time:  "You can fall off the couch and die" and "Life is inherently fatal."  I have been unable to confirm that you can indeed fall off the couch and die, but he's right that someday we will all die.  The only way to reach any great reward is to take some risk.  So, this morning, I loaded myself into the car and headed to the vaccine clinic humming "Que Sera Sera".  It's not that I am being flippant with my life, it's that I'm not in control anyway.  If it is my time to die, I will die.  Whether it is from a car accident, cancer, the yellow fever vaccine or a brain bleed caused by trying to build a bridge between the "Boomers" and "The Millenniums".  

Andrew in his "Couch-fall" protection gear.

Andrew in his "Couch-fall" protection gear.