Reducing the Risk of Flu is Worth a Shot

Guest post by Dr. Jane Ho, pediatrician in Westbrook and clinical adviser to the MaineHealth Childhood Immunizations Program.

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As a parent of three teen boys and a local pediatrician, it concerns me that many people fail to get an annual flu vaccine. Over the course of my 20 years in practice, I’ve seen plenty of previously healthy patients succumb to influenza. And I’ve even had to comfort scared parents, wishing they had done more to try to prevent their child’s illness in the first place.

The CDC recommends that everyone six months of age and older get a flu vaccine each and every year, yet only about 46% of people got a flu vaccine last season. This year, in support of organizations such as Vax Maine Kids, MaineHealth and the Maine Immunization Program, I’m doing all I can to help educate people about the importance of flu vaccination during National Influenza Vaccination Week.

What I’ve discovered through conversations in my own practice is that there is a lot of hesitation about the flu shot that is based on false information. So here is what I feel people need to know about this year’s flu vaccination to assist them in making an educated decision.

The severity of flu can differ from season to season.

The flu is both serious and unpredictable. It’s estimated that over 200,000 people are hospitalized and between 3,000 and 49,000 people will die from flu annually in the United States. So far this year, seasonal influenza A (H3N2) viruses have been most common and history has shown that there are more severe flu illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths during seasons when these viruses predominate.

No vaccine is 100% effective, but reducing your odds of flu related hospitalization by 70-80% is better than no protection at all.

The fact is that flu vaccine efficacy can vary widely from season to season depending on the “match” between the inactivated flu viruses that make up the vaccine, and the viruses that ultimately are spreading in the community.

Just last week, the CDC warned that their early surveillance data indicated that most of the confirmed flu cases so far this season were of the influenza A (H3N2) strain. However, roughly half of the H3N2 viruses analyzed are drift variants: viruses with antigenic or genetic changes that make them different from that season’s vaccine virus. This means the vaccine’s ability to protect against those viruses may be reduced, although vaccinated people may still have a milder illness if they do become infected. It’s important to remember that this year’s vaccine will offer protection against other flu viruses that are circulating and may become more common later in the season, such as influenza A (H1N1) virus and two different influenza B viruses.

So while flu vaccination doesn’t come with a 100% money back guarantee, the vaccine is still your best shot at not getting the flu and at reducing the severity of the disease if you do get sick. Recent studies show that flu vaccine reduced PICU admission among children by 74% and hospitalizations among adults by 77%. Additionally, when women get a flu shot during pregnancy, it’s 92% effective in preventing flu-related hospitalizations of their newborn babies.

Flu vaccination is safe and cannot give you the flu.

Because the viruses in the shot are either killed (inactivated) or recombinant (don’t contain virus particles), it’s scientifically impossible to get the flu from the vaccine. Millions of people have safely received flu vaccines for decades. In fact, since the flu vaccine is administered each year to people of all ages, both the CDC and the FDA closely monitor safety data to identify any unexpected adverse events.

While common side effects may include soreness, redness or swelling where the shot was given, headache, muscle aches, fever and nausea, these symptoms typically occur soon after the shot and only last 1 to 2 days. The actual symptoms of influenza are much more severe and long-lasting, which is why it’s so important to prevent influenza with a safe and effective vaccine.

Even healthy people can die from flu.

Last season there were 109 pediatric flu deaths. Almost half were in previously healthy children and 90% were in children who were unvaccinated. So far this season five children have already died.

CDC graphic showing benefits of flu vaccination

Source: CDC

Widespread flu vaccination helps protect everyone — even those who cant be vaccinated.

By vaccinating yourself and your family, you’ll also be helping to protect others in our community. This is especially important for people who are at increased risk of complications, like older adults, young children, pregnant women and people with chronic medical conditions like asthma, diabetes, cancer or heart conditions and those who have medical contra-indications to vaccination.

Its recommended that pregnant women receive a flu shot.

Getting vaccinated while expecting not only helps to protect women from the risks of preterm labor, stillbirth and miscarriage, it also benefits newborn babies by transferring maternal antibodies that will help protect them until they are old enough to be vaccinated themselves at six months of age.

Its not too late to get vaccinated.

Flu season typically runs from October to May, and peaks in Maine later than in the rest of the country. Flu activity has remained sporadic throughout Maine during the past few weeks, but since it takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to the flu to develop in the body, it’s best not to put off vaccination. States surrounding Maine are already seeing much more widespread flu activity than we are. With the holidays approaching, we are all more likely to get exposed to the flu. Since people who have the flu are often contagious before they exhibit symptoms, they could easily be spreading flu along with their holiday cheer and not even know it.

If you have questions about the flu or the vaccine, talk to your healthcare provider, visit www.flu.gov/, or call 1-800-CDC-INFO. If you’re ready to get your family vaccinated, visit the HealthMap Vaccine Finder to find the nearest vaccination location.

As a pediatrician who has treated children with severe cases of flu, and a parent who cares deeply about the health of Maine children and families, I urge you to get vaccinated today, before it’s too late. Do it for yourself. Do it for your children. Do it for your elderly neighbor, your pregnant co-worker, and your friend’s newborn baby. Do it for a healthier Maine and do it today!

Dr. Jane Ho helps support childhood immunization efforts as a clinical advisor to the MaineHealth Childhood Immunizations Program and Vax Maine KidsDr. Ho graduated from Brown University Medical School and practices pediatric medicine at Maine Medical Partners Westbrook Pediatrics, a department of Maine Medical Center.  She also serves on the faculty of the Tufts University School of Medicine (TUSM) and teaches medical students as well as pediatric residents at Maine Medical Center. She is also on the staff of the Barbara Bush Childrens Hospital at Maine Medical Center and at Mercy Hospital.

For more information on the importance of childhood immunizations in general visit Vax Maine Kids or like them on Facebook at Vax Maine Kids.

Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. Now she writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.