By Glenn Ellis
As summer becomes a faint memory for most of us, winter is just around the corner. This year’s Farmer’s Almanac has a sobering forecast for winter 2019-2020: “Get ready for shivers, snowflakes, and slush! Big chills and strong storms will bring heavy rain and sleet, not to mention piles of snow!”
What this means for us all is that we should start preparing for the cold and flu season.
Even though you can get a cold anytime of the year, they do seem to be more prevalent in the winter. While it is not possible to actually prevent getting a cold, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that you can reduce your risk by washing your hands often, not touching your face with unwashed hands, and staying away from people who are sick with a cold.
The flu (influenza) on the other hand is a different story. The CDC offers that the best strategy for preventing, or reducing, your risk of getting the flu is to get a flu vaccination.
Now comes the big controversy.
Few things in medicine and healthcare have generated more controversy, divisiveness, or outright fear, than the topic of vaccines…of any kind.
We all know of either from personal experience, or through the experience of family and friends, about the gut-wrenching decisions around whether to give a child his/her scheduled vaccinations. We know that childhood infectious diseases that once plagued us, have all been eradicated, until recently, where we saw a rise in measles and whooping coughs in areas of the country where parents were more aggressively exercising exemptions based on religious or philosophical beliefs.
The debate carries over into the HPV vaccine with its defenders and critics. This vaccine was initially designed to prevent girls from ovarian cancer. However, after much public uproar, boys were included, since the virus that causes this cancer must be transmitted from boys to girls.
Enough about that, on to the flu and the flu vaccine. Much of what I’ll share with you in this column is designed to provide more complete, factual information in order for you to make an informed decision for yourself or your family.
Let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about what the flu is, and why it’s a threat to your health.
The flu is a virus (not bacteria!) that spreads mostly from person to person, and typically around the fall through spring months. There are various types, including Influenza A, B, and C, as well as Swine and Avian Flu.
The type of flu varies by the specific protein that is a part of the “coat” that a virus wears. This gets real complicated by the fact that each year, the flu that is prepared to hit us differs from year to year.
So, how do we deal with that? Well, the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Influenza Surveillance Network coordinates with scientists from around the world and come up with a statistical guesstimate of the most probable flu virus to hit in the upcoming flu season. Voila, the vaccine is produced based on this process each year, since the virus changes and evolves from year to year.
The flu virus for the season usually hits our part of the world in fall and winter, so the official flu season is generally from October through April.
Now, here’s the stuff you need to know so that your decision about whether to get the flu vaccine is an informed decision, not one based on myths, fear, or mistrust:
Since the season typically begins in October, and the vaccine takes 2-4 weeks to take effect once you get it, October is the time to do it, if you’ve decided to get one this year. The 2-4-week window before the vaccine starts to work is the reason people say, “I got the flu shot last year and \got the flu anyway.” These folks were infected before the vaccine took effect.
For some of the real skeptics among us, let me be clear, getting the flu vaccine is not going to guarantee that you won’t get the flu. In fact, the data from the CDC shows that on any given year, the flu vaccine is 40-60 percent effective in preventing the flu. I know that’s almost like saying, ‘Hey, Glenn, there’s a 50/50 chance that I’ll get the flu whether I get the vaccine or not.” I say, not so fast…there’s more than your own health to think about.
Whether the vaccine matches the dominant strains of flu well or not so well, it’s better than nothing. Not only that, some of us work around or live with people with compromised immune systems, and getting vaccinated helps to protect their delicate health condition. Also, even getting the flu after getting the vaccine results in a lesser severity of flu symptoms, and in many cases even a shorter duration of having the flu.
For the 2017-2018 flu season, the CDC estimated that more than 56,000 Americans would die. Officials later calculated that 79,000 had – which, the agency noted, is more people than usually fill a Super Bowl stadium. So getting the flu is truly a potentially deadly situation.
The flu vaccine lasts about six months, the approximate length of the flu season. Getting it during the month of October offers you the greatest protection.
Glenn Ellis, is Research Bioethics Fellow at Harvard Medical School and author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. Listen to Glenn, on radio in Birmingham or V94.9, Sundays at 7:50pm, or visit: www.glennellis.com.