The truth about flu vaccines
By Glenn Ellis, George Curry Media Columnist
Every year in the United States, on average:5 percent to 20 percent of the population gets the flu. More than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu-related complications and about 36,000 people die from flu-related causes.
While seasonal flu outbreaks can happen as early as October, most of the time, influenza activity peaks in January or later. During the past 26 flu seasons, months with the heaviest flu activity (peak months) occurred in November one season, December four seasons, January five seasons, February 12 seasons, and March four seasons.
Some people, such as older people, young children, and people with certain health conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease), are at higher risk for serious flu complications.
Flu viruses are thought to spread mainly from person to person through coughing or sneezing by people with influenza. Sometimes people may become infected by touching something with flu viruses on it and then touching their mouth or nose. Most healthy adults may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to five days after becoming sick. That means that you may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before you know you are sick, as well as while you are sick.
The term “stomach flu” is sometimes used to describe illnesses with nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. These symptoms can be caused by many different viruses, bacteria or even parasites. While vomiting, diarrhea, and being nauseous or “sick to your stomach” can sometimes be related to the flu – more commonly in children than adults – these problems are rarely the main symptoms of influenza. The flu is a respiratory disease, not a stomach or intestinal disease.
Nobody wants to get the flu. But many people are wary about getting a “flu shot” that might be unnecessary or ineffective. Many experts worry a-bout a 1918-like flu pandemic, and warn of the risks of getting the virus, from being sneezed on at work or from living with a toddler. In spite of this, only a third of us actually get a flu shot. Nevertheless, health officials encourage the flu vaccine.
So, just how effective is the flu shot?
The flu shot is only as good as the educated guesses of a group of vaccine researchers across the globe. Every February, they try to predict which flu viruses will work their evil the next fall and winter. Their three top choices are put into the vaccine. How well the flu vaccine works depends on how well the match is between the influenza (flu) vaccine and the types of flu viruses that are circulating that year. Scientists try to predict what strains of flu viruses are most likely to spread and cause illness each year to put into the vaccine. In years when the vaccine strains and the virus strains are well-matched, the vaccine can reduce the chances of getting the flu by 70 percent to 90 percent in healthy adults. The vaccine may be somewhat less effective in elderly persons and very young children, but vaccination can still prevent serious complications from the flu.
Some people might get flu-like symptoms even after they have been vaccinated against the flu.
There are several reasons why: 1) People may be exposed to an influenza virus shortly before getting vaccinated or during the two-week period that it takes the body to gain protection after getting vaccinated. This exposure may result in a person becoming ill with flu before the vaccine begins to protect them. 2) People may become ill from other non-flu viruses that circulate during the flu season, which can also cause flu-like symptoms such as rhinovirus. 3) A person may be exposed to an influenza virus that is not included in the vaccine. 4) Unfortunately, some people can remain unprotected from flu despite getting the vaccine. This is more likely to occur among people that have weakened immune systems. But even among people with weakened immune systems, the flu vaccine can still help prevent influenza complications.
Remember: antibiotics only work against infections caused by bacteria. They do not work against any infections caused by viruses. If you have a viral infection, antibiotics will not cure it, help you feel better, or prevent someone else from getting your virus.
It’s that time of year again. We are heading into flu season, so let’s get prepared. Are you ready for a widespread flu outbreak? Even though the best protection against the flu is to get a flu vaccine every year; depending on your personal preferences and your health, there are different options, figure out which one is right for you.
Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.
(DISCLAIMER: The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.)
Glenn Ellis, is a regular media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. Listen to him every Saturday at 9 a.m. (EST) on www.900amwurd.com, and Sundays at 8:30 a.m. (EST) on www.wdasfm.com. For more good health information, visit: glennellis.com