By Glenn Ellis
According to the statistics, somewhere between 5 and 20 percent of those reading this column will get the flu this season. The actual average of those who get it is 8 percent. The numbers get higher because some of us get the flu, but never realize that the reason we feel lousy is because we have the flu.
I hope you don’t have “media fatigue” from hearing about the flu all the time, because this is serious business, and could be a health tragedy for you or for someone you love. Depending on the severity of strain of the flu virus, each year the flu kills anywhere from 3,000 to 49,000 people in the U.S. and sends about 200,000 to the hospital. So, don’t make the mistake of thinking a bad cold and the flu are the same thing.
When most of us think of the flu, we tend to think of a sore throat, runny nose, cough, body aches, fever and all those other nasty flu symptoms. What you may not realize is that, for people who are less than healthy to start with, the flu can trigger some other serious medical problems: complications as severe as heart attack and stroke.
My biggest personal reason for being an advocate of the flu vaccine is simple: I care about the vulnerable people around us: the elderly; children; cancer patients; people with weakened immune systems.
Even though the sickest among us suffer the greatest consequence from the flu, it is healthy people who need to get vaccinated. The people we come in contact with on a regular basis, who are really healthy, can be just mildly sick from the flu, but they’re the ones who are moving the flu around the community infecting those whose health is far more vulnerable.
Those whose immune systems are compromised are far more vulnerable to infections secondary to the flu. A cancer patient’s ability to fight infection is hampered by not only their disease but also by treatments, such as chemotherapy, that weaken their immune system. This means that the flu can lead to complications like pneumonia and delays in life-saving treatments for diseases such as cancer.
The underdeveloped immune system of younger children and infants also puts them at greater risk of the flu and ensuing complications. Same goes for pregnant women who experience changes to their immune system, heart and lungs that make them more vulnerable and lead to complications such as premature labor, preterm birth or birth defects in their unborn children.
No one really knows why the flu season happens when or where, but it’s happening right now.
Flu season has come early this year due to a strain of the virus not typically seen during this time of year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The early activity is primarily being caused by influenza B/Victoria viruses, which is unusual this early in the season. It typically hits in late February or March.
While seasonal influenza (flu) viruses are detected year-round in the United States, flu viruses are most common during the fall and winter. Experts are able to determine that the flu season is underway when there is a significant increase in the number of cases turning up at doctors’ offices for three consecutive weeks.
I am well aware of the decades of controversy surrounding the flu vaccine. I am also aware of how many of us have no idea what the logic is around the vaccine, or how it works.
Flu vaccines protect against three or four types of flu virus (usually 2 A types and 1 or 2 B types). Vaccine manufacturers produce flu vaccines based on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendations. In February each year, the WHO assesses the strains of flu virus that are most likely to be circulating in the northern hemisphere over the following winter. Based on this assessment, WHO recommends which flu strains the vaccines should contain for the forthcoming winter.
The flu vaccine stimulates your body’s immune system to make antibodies to attack the flu virus. Antibodies are proteins that recognize and fight off germs, such as viruses, that have invaded your blood.
If you’re exposed to the flu virus after you have had the flu vaccine, your immune system will recognize the virus and immediately produce antibodies to fight it. It may take 10 to 14 days for your immunity to build up fully after you have had the flu vaccine. This is why you must ignore those who say they only got the flu after they receive a flu shot. Apparently, they were already infected with the virus when they got the vaccine, but they got sick before the vaccine had a chance to “kick in”.
Oh, and by the way, you need to have a flu vaccination every year as the antibodies that protect you from flu decline over time, and flu strains can also change from year to year.
Regardless of your religious beliefs; your philosophical position; or your thoughts about conspiracies, the best way to prevent flu is by getting a flu vaccine each year. It is not too late to get vaccinated. As my friend, bioethicist Dr. September Williams states, “Remember you do not know how vulnerable the person next to you may be to your slight response to the flu.”
Glenn Ellis, is Research Bioethics Fellow at Harvard Medical School and author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. For more good health information visit: www.glennellis.com.