Today I took care of myself and my community by getting a flu vaccine.
I get one every year. I do it not just to protect myself (although that’s an important consideration–I don’t have time to get sick!), but also to protect my community from a serious health hazard.
A serious health hazard? Surely that’s an exaggeration, right? After all, haven’t we all gotten the flu at some point, been unpleasantly sick a few days, but recovered? Well no, actually. Some of us get very sick, and some haven’t recovered from it. Approximately 200,000 people have to go to the hospital each year because of the flu, and between 3,300 to 49,000 people actually die from it every year.
That range in severity is due in part to how effective vaccination programs are from year to year.
The seasonal influenza vaccine is critical for stopping the spread of the virus. The flu virus can mutate very rapidly, so every year public health officials have to try to anticipate which strain(s) are likely to be the most prevalent, so that vaccines can be designed against them. This year, there appear to be three strains of influenza that pose potential threats:
According to the CDC, this year’s vaccine is designed to provoke immunity against three strains of virus:
–an A/California/7/2009 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus;
–an A(H3N2) virus antigenically like the cell-propagated prototype virus A/Victoria/361/2011;
–a B/Massachusetts/2/2012-like virus.
The CDC monitors outbreaks of influenza all across the country constantly, and publishes their findings in a weekly report called “Fluview”. They monitor to see if the strains that are spreading are the ones that the vaccine provides immunity against. This is extremely important in preventing an outbreak from becoming a pandemic.
For example, here are the data reported on flu cases across the United States for October 5-October 25th:
Right now, when levels of influenza infection are low, it’s a good time to get the vaccine and prevent the virus from spreading.
How it works: The seasonal flu vaccine works by provoking the body’s natural immune response. With the vaccine, a person is exposed to small amounts of weakened (in the nasal spray version) or killed ( in the injected version) strains of the flu. The immune system recognizes the foreign bodies as a threat, and mounts an immune response against them by producing strain-specific antibodies (just as they do in any type of infection). When a person is exposed to the actual live virus, these antibodies quickly destroy it.
Why does this matter? There are some people who can’t get the vaccine. They may be allergic to components of it, immunologically compromised, or have bad reactions to the vaccine. Their only protection against the virus is not getting exposed. One of the best ways of preventing their infection (and that of other people who choose not to get the vaccine) is to stop influenza’s spread through herd immunity.
But what about the dangers? I don’t want to get the flu from the vaccine!
No vaccine is 100% safe (no medical treatment is!!!). A very small number of people have adverse reactions to vaccines (such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome). However, these conditions are very rare. There is a LOT of misinformation and urban legends being spread about the flu vaccine (and vaccines in general). It’s vitally important that you familiarize yourself with these common mistruths, and what the science actually says about them. This is the best resource I’ve seen on the subject recently. The post debunks many of the myths about vaccines, including the most repeated one:
“Myth #1: The flu vaccine gives you the flu or makes you sick. (No, it doesn’t.)
This is by far the most common myth I hear – even though it’s scientifically impossible from the inactivated vaccine. Are there people who become sick right after having gotten the flu shot? Of course, and it’s an illness they had likely caught before the shot and it took a a few days for symptoms to appear, or it’s just coincidence (and it may or may not be the flu). The flu shot takes two weeks to confer protection, and it takes 2-5 days to incubate a flu virus. A person who does come down with the flu within a week of getting the shot was already infected when they got the vaccine.
Even with the live vaccine in the nasal spray, the weakened virus cannot cause the flu. However, it is theoretically possible to “shed” the virus after receiving the live vaccine, thereby infecting others, though no serious cases have been reported of this occurring.
Edit: One thing worth noting is that some people may feel “under the weather” or generally crappy for a few days after the shot or a week or two later. A headache, nausea, fever, etc. can be a result of the side effects of the vaccine, usually from the immune system ramping up and producing antibodies against those influenza strains. Some may consider this feeling “sick,” but you are not sick in the sense that the flu vaccine caused you to fall ill from a pathogen, and the vaccine certainly didn’t give you the flu.”
Let me reiterate that point: You CANNOT get the flu from the vaccination. It’s medically impossible. If you’re still unconvinced, I recommend you read their post in its entirety. For a discussion about vaccines and autism (another common myth), I invite you to read my post (and the comments) here.
And here are some more resources for you to get answers to your questions about the flu vaccination:
EDITED TO ADD: Yet another reason to get the flu vaccine: a recent study has found that it lowers your risk of heart attacks and strokes.
So…what’s your reason for not getting vaccinated this year?