Stop Making Excuses: Why Flu Spike Still Points to Vaccine Benefits

Flu vaccine injection in man's arm

For more than a week now, media headlines have warned of a flu epidemic. There have been numerous reports of symptomatic patients flooding emergency rooms and taxing vaccine supplies. Boston and New York State have declared states of emergency.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that this is actually a moderately severe year, but that shouldn’t stop you from getting vaccinated—even now. Contrary to what you may believe, it is not too late. Influenza disease probably hasn’t even peaked yet.

Make no bones about it: the influenza virus can kill. Those who’ve tested positive for the virus describe symptoms ranging from feeling as if they’d been run over by a truck to suffering from high fever and exhaustion.

While it’s true that prescription antivirals such as Relenza and Tamiflu can be given to treat the flu, they’re most effective if you begin treatment within 48 hours of the first symptoms. Most patients don’t react quickly enough, and the drugs are in short supply.

That’s why it’s more important than ever to get vaccinated. If you’re a caregiver to the elderly, are pregnant or are around pregnant women or those under two, consider it your duty.

Fortunately, there is a vaccine, or more correctly a collection of vaccines, that can help prevent influenza. And it’s good news that the currently available “flu shots” actually contain the virus strains that are circulating.

Each year, the CDC and pharmaceutical companies try to make an educated guess about the components of the vaccine, based on what has caused the flu during the previous year. Usually, there are two Type A and one Type B influenza viruses represented. Type As are the ones that cause pandemics and most of the deaths. This year they got the As and Bs right.

However, recent studies estimate that the vaccine is only about 62 percent effective, for reasons no one understands yet. Nonetheless, if I told you that you could get a shot that was 62 percent effective against colon or breast cancer and that the vaccine had essentially no side effects, most of you would rush to get it.

Why then are so few people vaccinated against influenza each year?

There are several reasons: laziness; a lack of understanding of how serious flu can be; and fear of needles. Some people mistakenly think they can get the flu from the flu shot. (They can’t. The injectable vaccine contains only parts of the virus and can’t infect you.) If you fear a shot, there is another option for younger age groups; a nasally administered vaccine has been approved for people ages 2 to 49.

A few people avoid the vaccine because allergy to eggs is a contraindication to vaccination, but there is now an egg-free vaccine. Even immunocompromised people can receive the injectable flu vaccine with no risk.

So get vaccinated. Simple as that. You can help avoid the flu now or later. Yes, it takes a couple of weeks after the flu shot to build up immunity—but if you do get the flu, it will probably be a milder form.

Stop making excuses and DO IT!

email
Stephen G. Baum, M.D.

Stephen G. Baum, M.D.

Stephen G. Baum, M.D. is senior associate dean for students at Albert Einstein College of Medicine

More Posts - Website

Like what you’ve read? Subscribe to The Doctor’s Tablet!