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H1N1 vaccine is as safe as seasonal flu shots

I have heard several reports on the Internet regarding the ingredients of the H1N1 flu vaccine and have read that because the manufacturers are trying to create massive quantities of the vaccine, several rather scary fillers are being added. Can you help me understand what the ingredients are? I understand that kerosene is one component and I'd like confirmation of the others. I'm curious what you will find.

— Shari S., via e-mail

We're curious about where you are finding your information, too. A good place to start your search is www.flu.oregon.gov. A link called "H1N1 Vaccine" will lead you to loads of information about the vaccine, but not a single mention of kerosene anywhere.

Copies of the package inserts that provide full information about the vaccine for doctors and patients can be found there or at www.fda.gov. Those list all the ingredients, but you'll have to scan through about two-thirds of each document to get to that information.

Essentially, each company producing the H1N1 vaccine uses the same methods and ingredients it uses to produce its seasonal flu vaccine.

"It's exactly the same as the seasonal flu vaccine, just with a different virus," explained Perrin Damon, an Oregon Department of Human Services spokeswoman. "It's just as safe."

A statement from Dr. Mel Kohn, director of the Oregon Public Health Division, also confirmed that no corners are being cut when it comes to the safety of manufacturing the vaccine, which will meet the same high standards as the seasonal flu vaccine.

Of course, the routine production of flu vaccine sounds kind of scary, what with growing viruses in fertile chicken eggs, then extracting and deactivating the virus with detergents, surfactants, organic solvents, and, in the case of Sanofi Pasteur, formaldehyde. The broken-apart virus is then cleaned and suspended in a sterile saline solution, usually buffered with sodium phosphate. Sanofi's formula promises no antibiotics, which are used in some production processes, and no latex, but does include gelatin as a stabilizer.

The nasal spray FluMist vaccine contains live virus in a sucrose solution that also includes amino acids, gelatin derived from pigs and monosodium glutamate. Depending on where you're from, those could qualify as scary fillers or ingredients found in the kitchen. It has no preservatives.

The three approved injectable vaccines — from CSL Ltd., Novartis and Sanofi — all come in preservative-free single doses or multi-dose vials that contain thimerasol, a mercury-derived preservative that some people avoid.

Damon also pointed out that today's vaccines don't contain any adjuvants, additives that enhance the immune response and are designed to enable doctors to inject less vaccine. Some H1N1 vaccines administered outside the U.S. include those chemicals and a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention video cited in some media reports said the U.S. could introduce them if the outbreak worsens.

One adjuvant — squalene, a natural hydrocarbon that is a precursor of steroids and cholesterol — has generated some controversy.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to youasked@mailtribune.com. We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.