-by Dr. Alan Laird, Chief Medical Officer
Yes, the days are getting shorter, the leaves are turning, and school has started; so it must be … flu shot time. It is that time of year for commercials about flu shots, mail reminders and offers at the doctor’s office for the shot. As always, it is your choice to get it or not get it. But in case you are on the fence, here are some things to think about.
Influenza hits hardest in those of us who can tolerate it the least. This includes the very young (newborns and infants), the very old (nursing home and infirmed) and those of us with chronic diseases (heart problems, lung problems, immune problems and such). Unfortunately those same populations of people may get the least help from the flu shot for prevention. For that reason, those groups depend on us healthy folks to not bring them the “gift” of the flu. It is good if we avoid visiting if we are sick. However we may be spreading influenza before we actually get sick. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) states an average person with influenza is contagious one day before the symptoms begin and up to five to seven days after becoming ill. So it is a great idea to stay home for a week if you have the flu (providing you have the luxury to do so). But an even better option is to not get the flu at all. And that is where a flu shot can help.
No, influenza shots are not perfect. The World Health Organization (WHO) makes their best educated guess on the strains of flu we expect to be active this year. This group consensus occurs in February for the Northern Hemisphere and September for the Southern Hemisphere. Companies then begin to produce the vaccine, which needs a lead time of 6 months or more to produce. Usually they get it right (a good match), but sometimes the virus changes and the preventive shot does not work as well as we would like. It is the best system we have and involves agencies all over the world for monitoring and recommendations. Since 2004, studies from the CDC regarding influenza vaccine effectiveness show it is generally 40 to 60 percent effective. But sometimes (2004 – 05 and 2015 – 16) it can be as low 10 to 20 percent. While that is not the goal, even a 10 percent improvement in the likelihood of staying healthy (and keeping others healthy) is worth the time and trouble of a shot.
There are several different types of flu shots available. Ask your healthcare provider which is best for you. There are preservative free flu shot and for those who really cannot tolerate needles, there is a nasal spray (although there are health and age restrictions for that option). Most insurance covers the full shot and there are places offering it for free or minimal cost. So for most of us, there is no good excuse not to get a preventative shot. And if we don’t want to do it for ourselves, perhaps we can think of those around us and get it to help protect them from 7 – 10 days of discomfort or worse.