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In the midst of flu season: Everything you need to know about the flu vaccine

December 11, 2014

Have you and your children had your seasonal flu vaccines yet?

If you have, you’ve done the best that you can to avoid one of the most contagious, common and life-threatening illnesses in the world. If not, there’s no better time than the present!

National Influenza Vaccination Week (NIVW) is this week, December 7th through the 13th. This week of awareness was created to remind those of you who are not yet immunized that it is not too late!

What is the flu?

The flu, or influenza, is a viral illness that can be very mild or very serious. The flu includes the sudden onset of high fever, body aches, stuffy nose, and a nasty cough. Vomiting and diarrhea, commonly referred to as the “stomach flu” are not influenza. Every year in the U.S., between 5% and 20% of people will get the flu. It can cause serious illness and complications, especially in the very young and the elderly, in pregnant women and in people with other illnesses like asthma, obesity (the number one high-risk factor in adults), diabetes and many others. Children under one year of age and senior citizens account for most flu deaths. In fact, every year in the U.S. there are an average of 200,000 people admitted to the hospital due to the flu and most years more than 35,000 people die of complications of the flu.Last year in the United States, 96 children died of influenza. Nearly all of these deaths could have been prevented by immunization.

Learn about Who Needs A Flu Vaccine.

What you should know about the flu vaccine

In the United States flu activity usually begins in October, peaks between December and February and can last as late as May. Since there are many different “strains,” the flu vaccine is reformulated every year based upon what the World Health Organization identifies as the most likely strains to hit during the coming flu season. Since flu viruses are constantly changing, vaccines are never perfect. However, it has been shown that the flu vaccine reduces flu-related deaths by up to 80%, and also dramatically reduces rates of hospitalizations and complications. Patients who have had the flu vaccine may still get the flu, but it is likely to be milder than it would have been without the vaccine. In addition, by getting the flu vaccine and reducing our chance of illness, we also reduce the spread of flu in the community. In particular, since flu vaccines just don’t work for babies less than 6 months of age, the only way that these young children can be protected is for those around them and those in the community to get vaccinated so that the flu does not spread to them. We call this “cocooning” our babies.

Is the flu vaccine safe?

Flu vaccines are ­extremely safe, contrary to popular belief and lots of bad information on the internet. You cannot get the flu from a flu shot. In fact, the most common side effects of the flu shot (or any shot, for that matter) are a little local discomfort and/or swelling at the site of the shot and a little low grade fever. And that is nothing compared to the flu itself, which will likely guarantee up to a week of fever and contagion to others, at best. The flu mist, a nasal spray vaccine that has weakened live flu in it, can give you some upper respiratory symptoms, and should not be given to older adults or to people with certain underlying illnesses like asthma or immune problems. Serious side effects of the flu vaccine occur at a rate of one or two cases per million doses of vaccine, which is much, much lower than the risk of complications from the flu itself.

Find trustworthy information about the flu

Today, Thursday, December 11, as part of National Influenza Vaccination Week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will provide a media update that I encourage you to check out.

The update will:

  • Share results from a flu vaccine impact study for 2013-2014
  • Provide an update on influenza activity in the US.
  • Present early-season flu vaccination coverage estimates
The CDC website (CDC.gov) also offers tremendous, ACCURATE information on the flu and flu vaccines.

We live in a very privileged society. Most of us have the luxury of choosing whether or not to be immunized against potentially deadly diseases like the flu. We complain that an achy arm might ruin our child’s basketball game or might interfere with a birthday party or a trip to a theme park. We read misinformation on the internet that sways us from believing in proven public health and safety measures. Unlike developing countries where mothers watch their children die of vaccine-preventable illness every day, we glibly decline flu shots knowing that we and our family members will likely be fine. Unless we are not. Unless one of our children, our pregnant wives or daughters, or our parents die from the vaccine-preventable disease called the flu.

Influenza vaccine is recommended for everyone 6 months of age and older. The risks associated with flu vaccines are almost zero. Insurance covers them. If you are paying cash, they are inexpensive. If you cannot afford a flu vaccine, they are offered to children free-of-charge through the Health Department. Flu vaccines are available at almost every primary care office in the city, and at pharmacies everywhere. So there really is no good reason not to do it.

We are more than halfway through National Influenza Vaccination Week, and it is not too late to be immunized against the flu. Do it. Protect yourself, those you love, and those you don’t even know.

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