Better Health, Better Life (Winter 2014): Why Get the Flu Shot?
What is the "flu"?
Many folks, physicians included, use the term “flu” to describe a variety of acute viral illnesses. In fact, “flu” is short for INFLUENZA which is highly contagious, capable of causing extreme illness and even death. Antibiotics do not work against influenza and it can be very difficult to treat beyond basic support while the body’s own defense mechanisms gear up to combat the responsible virus. Unlike some viral illnesses for which one immunization or one series of immunizations will provide lifelong protection, the influenza virus(es) change (mutate) frequently and each year a new set of viral antigens (or infectious “bugs” in lay terms) appear for which people who have had flu shots or suffered the flu previously will have no immunity! In medical school, students are amazed while learning about the biologic tools which these disease causing biologic agents (they are so primitive that they do not have the cellular machinery necessary to be called “organisms”) employ to reproduce themselves inside of more advanced animals and even plants. Viruses are dangerous for lots of reasons (look at Ebola!) but the ability of some common disease causing agents to mutate in very short periods of time is one of the most alarming qualities.
Vaccines and the Benefits of Immunization
Remarkably, microbiologists have learned so much about the behavior and makeup of viruses and influenza, in particular, that they are able to predict which variants will be the most likely and important to cause disease in an upcoming flu season. Pharmaceutical companies produce the appropriate vaccines for each season. The vaccines are usually a mixture of antigens designed to protect against several possible infections. Flu immunization by shot or by nasal spray is a miracle of modern science. The risks of these shots or sprays are uncommon and usually mild. The benefits of immunization far outweighs the risks. Many hospitals do not allow doctors and nurses to work unless they have been immunized for three very good reasons: 1) they will be exposed by the patients they see, 2) they can catch the flu and be contagious before they know that they have it (obviously, a bad thing) and 3) they can get sick when they are needed most at work! The point is that doctors do not typically do things to themselves that they do not trust!
Who should get the flu shot?
Some people are at especially high risk of catching the flu and/or getting terribly sick if they get infected. Pregnant women, young children, folks over 50 years of age, people with asthma, diabetes, COPD or certain other illnesses, people who live and work in hospitals, clinics and nursing homes and people who might transmit the disease to a vulnerable person (parents and caretakers, for example.)
UHA’s message is clear: everybody should consider getting an annual flu immunization and most people should get it done.
Flu season starts in the Fall and immunization by September is ideal. Severely allergic people, those who have suffered Guillain-Barre Syndrome and people who are ill should talk to a doctor before immunization.
Getting immunized is easy and important. UHA does not want you to get sick or to pass the flu to other people. We live in a lucky society and almost nobody has lived through a pandemic. The flu can spread widely and rapidly and in 1918 it killed at least 30 million people. Do your part for yourself and others!