Why Get A Flu Shot Now: Unusually Early Season, Already Here

(Source: CDC)

(Source: CDC, figures are national)

To all our friends who have not yet gotten their flu vaccines yet, beware: This is looking like a very good year. For the flu, that is. A bad year for its human hosts.

This year’s flu season has kicked off early and strong in Massachusetts and elsewhere. You may already be seeing those empty seats in classrooms and workplaces.

State Department of Public Health data indicate that flu is already more widespread now than at any point last year — and levels usually don’t peak until mid-February, said  Dr. Ben Kruskal, chief of infectious diseases at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates.

Given that outlook, is it too late to get a vaccine?

Absolutely not, he said. “The CDC generally recommends vaccinating through April, and that’s partly because of the variability in how bad it is and how long it lasts. This year we’re certainly having an early start; the question is whether we’ll have an early finish. The main thing is, it certainly isn’t too late. This is prime time to get it because we’re starting to see a lot of flu activity which is unusually early and unusually severe this year.”

And it takes the vaccine a couple of weeks to fully kick in?

It’s a little complicated. It takes two weeks to produce measurable antibodies, but we don’t know how quickly you get protection. It probably does take some time — you’re probably not protected the next day.

And i believe the CDC is also saying the vaccine is a good “fit” this year for the viruses that are circulating?

Yes, the strains of flu that have been isolated so far do look very much like they’re matching the vaccine well, so the vaccine should be effective in preventing the flu this season.

One concern I hear from some is that the vaccine is not as effective as once portrayed – 

There are a variety of studies that keep coming out trying to look at the effectiveness of the flu vaccine, and it’s a really hard thing to measure. There are a lot of studies that came out over the last five to ten years, many of which were not very rigorous methodologically, and showed very rosy numbers for the efficacy of the vaccine. And more rigorous studies came out more recently showing that it’s not as good as we thought it might be.

But the CDC still says it’s the most effective way to prevent flu…

It’s effective, but it has to be part of a package that includes things like covering your cough and washing your hands.

I’ve also seen reports that getting a seasonal flu vaccine may make you more susceptible to H1N1 flu.

That’s a really complicated issue. There were a ton of papers published during the H1N1 pandemic and since then looking back at the potential effects of the two vaccines on their respective and non-respective diseases, and I don’t think there’s a very clear result. There were certainly some people who claimed one or the other vaccine might potentially make you more susceptible to the other flu, but I would say that’s not well-established or widely accepted. Also, it’s a moot point now, since the current vaccine contains both the 2009 H1N1 strain (now part of our seasonal flu mix) and a regular seasonal H3N2 strain, as well as a B strain. So when you get vaccinated this year, you get protection against all of these.

One friend of mine says she avoids the vaccine because it makes her sick.

The injectable vaccine carries dead virus, you cannot catch flu from it. Though it’s common to get some mild fever or muscle aches as a result of the vaccine. The other thing is that because the symptoms of flu are so non-specific, and because people are looking for them after they get the vaccine, there is a widespread sense of ‘Oh, I got the vaccine and this happened, therefore it was due to the vaccine,’ when it was actually just another viral infection.

In the nasal vaccine, you get attenuated flu virus — like the attenuated chicken pox virus in that vaccine — so you might have some mild symptoms afterward. It’s not uncommon to have sniffles for a couple of days.

The CDC says flu causes between 3,000 and 41,000 American deaths a year. How can the range be that broad? 

The flu is one of the wiliest germs around. It’s evolution in action. And the early occurrence and rapid rise this year make us concerned that this may be a more severe flu season than the last one, so it’s very important for people to get vaccinated.

Readers, that chart at the top may not be too scary for this year — yet — but it’s a reminder that people, children, die from flu. Some added incentive from the Massachusetts Medical Society:

What are complications from the flu?

Pneumonia is common, as are ear and sinus infections and dehydration. Patients with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, or congestive heart failure, may see those conditions get worse, posing serious threats to health. And no, you can’t get the flu from a flu shot.

Who should get vaccinated and who is most at risk?

Everyone six months and older should get a flu shot every year. Those at highest risk from complications from the flu are pregnant women; children under 5; adults 65 and older; people with asthma, diabetes, heart disease, or weakened immune systems; patients with neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions such as epilepsy, seizure disorders, or muscular dystrophy; people who are morbidly obese; and people in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. They, and the people they come into close contact with, including health care workers, should be vaccinated.

Where can I get a shot?

Plenty of vaccine is available and at multiple locations. Check with your physician or local board of health to see when and where flu vaccine and clinics will be available. You can also visit the Flu Vaccine Finder at http://flushot.healthmap.org

Further reading: Unusually early flu season intensifies

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  • athoughtor2

    The plural of “anecdotes” is not “data.” Posters on this thread are concerned with personal experience and political opinions while the author is interested in discussing the actual facts. This is a well-reasoned highly-informed article with sound recommendations. I appreciate being able to find something that is increasingly rare – a discussion of a subject based on actual data instead of political agendas
    and meaningless, personal opinions and stories.

  • A Farrell

    I’m all for vaccines, and I wish at least my students would get them, as they give me their flu year after year and I just have to teach sick, though the symptoms last 3 or 4 weeks with me. Until quite recently I always got flu shots: which by the way ALWAYS gave me, not the flu, but 36 hours of fever, joint pain and severe headache. I’m not making it up or delusional, as the extraordinarily arrogant doctor you interviewed believes: I have to plan shots very carefully as there’s rarely a time between September and May when I have time for a work slowdown–teachers don’t get weekends. During the year of the swine flu I got both vaccinations–and both flu’s, 3 weeks of debilitating illness each. During a particularly over-worked semester in Fall 2011, I simply could not find the time , and got neither the vaccine nor the flu. So far no vaccine this year either, though I may be able to risk a day of slowdown before next semester begins. So many people have stories like this that the arrogant, aggressive doctor and her more thoughtful colleagues might study these reports. Since it’s important to get flu vaccines–for the health of children and old people if you don’t care about the plight of teachers and professors!–it should also be important to study the enormous number of people who 1) fear the consequences of the shot (not everyone can take a day off work) and/or 2) seem to have better or the same luck without them.

  • rupert_a

    I trust WBUR to provide unbiased and intelligent reporting, but you lose a certain amount of integrity by pushing Big Pharma’s profit-driven propaganda.

  • jpr_2000

    This is one area where I think its important to bring up the facts since I think this is a money making operation from the drug companies. As far as I know they have never gotten the flu strain right and the match needs to be identical. My sisters a nurse and most of the doctors and nurses don’t want to get them (and they are exposed the most to various strains). However, hospital admin puts pressure on all the staff to buy in so they can propagate the ruse for the masses and make it a statement of fact.

    Getting a flu vaccine is not like eradicating smallpox, John Q, you are intentionally misleading the public by creating false analogies. Shame on you. I am not anti-vaccine, as a traveler I have been over vaccinated on a number of occasions and all my children are vaccinated (but it depends on the disease). Unfortunately, doctors have destroyed their reputation for unbiased advice, act more like salespeople for medical industry magic medicines and gadgets, and are actually responsible for the ruination of our most powerful weapon against bacteria (antibiotics).

    • John Q Public

      Your assertion that “hospital admin puts pressure on all the staff to buy in so they can propagate the ruse for the masses” does not make sense. Influenza vaccinations cost the hospital money (hospitals PAY to obtain them for their employees). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22372253 The reason hospitals tolerate such expenditures is because they are medically appropriate and help reduce influenza-related absenteeism.

      I never suggested that obtaining a flu vaccine is equivalent to eradication of any disease. As I noted in the immediately preceding sentence: “vaccinations against communicable diseases are essential to fight the spread of disease.” I was simply giving examples to establish the fact that vaccines have a purpose and are effective at meeting their purpose (they reduce the incidence of communicable diseases). Perhaps you do not have any data available to you. Here is some regarding the incidence of various vaccine-preventable illnesses: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/downloads/appendices/G/cases&deaths.PDF

      The flu virus is more difficult to vaccinate against because of the number of strains. However, just because something is difficult or less than perfect does not justify a complete surrender. Perhaps you are not familiar with the process used to select the strains. It is not instantaneous. Here is an overview from the World Health Organization:

      http://www.who.int/csr/disease/swineflu/notes/h1n1_vaccine_20090806/en/index.html

      Are profit-driven drug companies a problem? Yes. They are mostly profit-driven rather than patient-driven. However, that does not take away from the data and science underlying the principles of vaccination, including influenza vaccination.

  • gungi

    lol flu shots, no thanks for over 13 years. no flu since.

    • John Q Public

      gungi,

      Your statement reminds me of what my mother once told me when I asked her to put her seat belt on:

      “I don’t wear a seat belt and I’ve never been hurt in an accident. I knew a lady that had her seat belt on during a crash. It caused her hip to be crushed and she died!”

      Using my mom’s logic, people should not wear seat belts. Rather than relying on a few examples, health professionals rely on data that encompasses millions of people. Is the flu vaccination a guarantee against getting the flu? NO. Are you guaranteed to get the flu if you don’t have the vaccination? NO.

      If you are aware, there was a report of a man who fell out of a plane without a parachute and survived. There are also many cases of people who had parachutes, but died. Consequently, do you suggest that people no longer wear parachutes when jumping out of airplanes?

      Although you might be a single example of someone fortunate enough to not have caught the flu, vaccinations against communicable diseases are essential to fight the spread of disease. Think: Do we have polio in this country any more? How about small pox? Eradicated. How about mumps? http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/mumps.html

      Mumps has dramatically declined. Unfortunately, now, because some people are deciding to forego vaccination, it is making a comeback :(

      There are no guarantees in life, but evidence-based medicine has improved the lives of billions of people.

      • gungi

        “I don’t wear a seat belt and I’ve never been hurt in an accident. I knew a lady that had her seat belt on during a crash. It caused her hip to be crushed and she died!”

        stopped reading after this. I stated I havent gotten the flu shots due to me getting the flu when I got them. I stopped getting then then I stopped getting the flu. There is a HUGE difference from a Seat belt and a flu shot.

        Then you mention polio, small pox.. you do realize we are now talking about apples and oranges? Such a long post and yet a waste.

        good day.

        • John Q Public

          If my post inspires one person to be vaccinated, it was not a waste.

          I am grateful for your response. Please let me address two misconceptions.

          First, influenza is a very serious illness and should not treated lightly. Every year in the United States alone, tens of thousands of people die from influenza (a number coincidentally in the range of auto accident deaths). If you search for the Influenza Pandemic of 1918, you will see the devastation that the “flu” can have (i.e., kill tens of millions of people). With increased global travel and increased international transmission of communicable disease, one might wonder how many of these pandemics have been and will be avoided because of vaccinations. So, comparing the flu to polio and small pox is not as extreme as you might believe.

          Second, the injected vaccine does not cause the flu. Unless you received the attenuated nasal vaccination, the typical injected flu vaccine does not contain any infectious viral particles. In some unfortunate cases, the vaccination might lead to uncomfortable side-effects. However, these side effects are much more tolerable that actually contracting influenza. Consider this: Where you hospitalized after your flu vaccination?

          • jpr_2000

            “With increased global travel and increased international transmission of communicable disease, one might wonder how many of these pandemics have been and will be avoided because of vaccinations. So, comparing the flu to polio and small pox is not as extreme as you might believe.”

            Oh my, how do you live with yourself selling this junk?

          • John Q Public

            What specifically is “junk”?

            Are you referring to the fact that the 1918 Flu Pandemic killed tens of millions of people or that the flu continues to kill tens of thousands of people in the United States annually?
            Do you believe for some reason that a flu pandemic can no longer happen?

        • athoughtor2

          You should go back and read it, it is an excellent reply.

          • gungi

            No.