The Flu Vaccine
What You Need to Know
Patrick O’Neil, PA-C
Flu season will soon be upon us and it is time for the annual flu vaccine campaign. This is the time of year that I normally get bombarded by the ever-annoying questions about vaccine safety. I get it. There are people that have genuine concerns regarding vaccines because of things they have heard or read from various sources. With that in mind, here is a brief synopsis on the topic of vaccines.
WHY SHOULD I BE WORRIED ABOUT THE FLU?
The 2017-2018 flu season had one of the worst death tolls in recent history. Over 80,000 people in the United States died from Influenza, commonly called “the flu”.
HOW DO VACCINES WORK?
Vaccines introduce your immune system to the virus so that your immune system can produce anti-bodies to that particular virus. By receiving the vaccination you are providing yourself protection from that particular disease.
WHAT IS “HERD IMMUNITY”?
Since we are social animals and interact with lots of people each day, if enough people get the vaccination, then “herd immunity” helps protect those that cannot receive the vaccination due to medicine allergies, debilitated/weakened immune system, etc. In other words, if an immunocompromised person is only in contact with people that have received the vaccine, then it is highly unlikely the disease will be passed to them. The more people they are exposed to that have not had the vaccine, then the risk of them receiving the disease increases. There will always be those that cannot receive the vaccine, but if herd immunity exists, then they are protected at a higher rate. Conversely, you can hole up in your home and avoid contact with other people to hopefully avoid catching the flu. The flu is spread by droplets of infected fluid expelled during coughing or sneezing (or breathing). Washing surfaces and your hands with disinfecting soap can also prevent the spread of the disease (actually washing your hands is the best way to prevent the spread of many infectious diseases.
ARE VACCINES NECESSARY?
The myth that vaccination is no longer necessary arises from the belief that the particular diseases are either eradicated or not in their area. The only disease completely eradicated via vaccination is smallpox. It only exists in laboratory form in a couple of nations. The last known case of smallpox was in Somalia in 1977. We have seen dramatic reductions in the incidence of other viral diseases such as tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), measles, mumps, rubella, and polio.
CAN I GET THE FLU FROM THE VACCINE?
There are two types of flu vaccines: The live virus and the attenuated virus. The live virus is given by nasal route and is normally squirted up the nose. The attenuated virus is given via an injection. Both are safe, but the nasal route is not normally given to those that may have a slightly weaker immune system or that have other chronic conditions such as diabetes, etc. The vast majority of Americans receive the injection form. The live virus can give you some minor flu-like symptoms as your body builds immunity to the virus. The attenuated virus in the injection cannot give you the flu…..it is impossible. The virus is dead.
WHAT CAN I EXPECT AFTER THE INJECTION?
If everything goes correctly, your immune system will start building anitbodies to the virus. This is what we want to happen. As your immune system kicks in, some people will experience a slight fever. This is absolutely normal and is not a sign that you have contracted the flu. It is simply your immune system doing what it is supposed to do. Take a couple Tylenol and your fever will be controlled.
HOW EFFECTIVE IS THE VACCINE?
We always hear about people getting the flu, even after they had the vaccination. This CAN occur. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) rates the effectiveness of the 2017-2018 flu vaccine at 40%. This rate changes every year. Last year the virus seems to have mutated, or changed, during the season. Viruses can be tricky like that. The important thing to remember is that those individuals receiving the vaccine will have a much less severe form of the flu and it will not last as long. In other words, they can be treated at home with over-the-counter medications and will most likely only miss a day or two of work. Those people that contract influenza and did not have the vaccine could end up in the hospital. Their symptoms will be more severe.
WHAT SHOULD I DO?
Really???? Get the shot! It is free at many locations. Protect yourself. Protect your loved ones. Help provide herd immunity to those around you that cannot receive the vaccination.
AND WHAT IF I GET THE FLU?
Ok, so you ended up with the flu - in most cases get plenty of rest, stay hydrated (drink plenty of fluids - chicken soup is nice, tastes good, warm...) and treat the symptoms (cough, fever, etc) with over the counter medicine. You should get better in a week or so. In some cases if you are having problems breathing or other complications, you may need to go see your doctor. Use your best judgement but just note that you might spend a miserable day in the waiting room and do nothing more than expose others to the disease.