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With the exception of one year, when a friend with a newborn requested that everyone visiting be vaccinated, I never made a habit of getting the flu shot. And as far as I can recall, I never got the flu.
But a few years ago, my daughter was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition that meant getting the flu could be deadly for her. So getting the flu shot suddenly became a priority for our family.
Despite our efforts, my daughter has still gotten confirmed cases of the flu the last two years, and this year I joined her.
This has subjected us to a lot of comments by naysayers that all boil down to something like, “See, you got the flu shot and still got the flu. That’s why I’ll never get it.”
I’ve tried to explain that our doctors confirmed that our cases of the flu were actually mild compared to what those without the vaccine have been experiencing, but for many people this information doesn’t seem to make a difference.
Everyone seems to have an opinion about the flu shot, even if they don’t know much about it — including that former version of myself, who rationalized that she’d never gotten sick, so why should she get the vaccine?
But all these myths and misconceptions about this simple little shot keep people from understanding the health benefits it provides — and how dangerous the flu can be.
Yes, you need a flu shot even if you’ve never had the flu
Dr. Gretchen LaSalle is a family physician in Spokane, Washington and author of the book, “Let’s Talk Vaccines: A Clinician’s Guide to Addressing Vaccine Hesitancy and Saving Lives.”
She said that anyone who claims to have never had the flu is very lucky, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t at risk of ever getting the flu in the future.
“Saying that you have never had the flu so you don’t need the flu shot is, in my mind, like saying you’ve never been in a car accident so you don’t need a seatbelt,” Dr. LaSalle said.
In fact, your chances of getting the flu are far greater than your chances of getting in a car accident any given year. The CDC estimates between 9.3 million and 49 millionTrusted Source cases of the flu occur every year in the United States alone.
Those numbers are much higher than the 6 million annual car crashes the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission reports on average.
But it doesn’t always work
Just as seatbelts won’t always prevent an injury in case of an accident, the flu shot won’t always protect you from getting the flu.
But that’s not a reason not to get it.
“Although not 100 percent protective, the influenza vaccination is at least moderately effective in preventing flu,” said Dr. Richard Harris, an infectious disease specialist with Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas.
“And there is evidence that patients who develop influenza after vaccination will have a milder course than if they had not been vaccinated,” he said.
He’s referring to researchTrusted Source conducted by the CDC between 2012 and 2015 that found receiving a flu vaccination reduced the risk of adults being admitted to the hospital for flu complications by 37 percent, and the risk of being admitted to the ICU by 82 percent.
So even when the flu shot doesn’t prevent you from getting the flu entirely, it can reduce the severity.
Why does that matter?
Reducing the severity of the disease — even if not preventing it entirely — is a big deal when it comes to the flu.
Why? Because the flu can and does kill people.
“Every year an average of 12,000 to 56,000 people die of influenza in the United States,” LaSalle explained.
“In the 2017-18 flu season, approximately 80,000 people died,” she said. “What we know from looking back at those people who died from influenza is that year, approximately 80 to 90 percent of them did not have a flu shot.”
In other words, the flu shot saves lives.
How does the flu shot work?
LaSalle explained that the flu shot works by exposing the immune system to a dead version of the virus.
“This allows our bodies to ‘see’ the virus and develop antibodies without experiencing the overwhelming inflammation (resulting in body aches, high fever, malaise, and putting us at risk of severe complications like pneumonia and death) that the influenza infection causes,” she said.
By allowing for this controlled exposure, the body’s immune system develops a plan of attack for fighting off the real flu virus if it’s exposed.
So why does the flu shot appear to be more effective some years than others?
Dr. Harris said this is partially because “some individuals have a better immune response than others to the same flu shot.”
Then there’s the fact that flu vaccines are developed about 6 months in advance, utilizing the best estimate of which strains may occur.
Whether or not those strains are actually the ones that begin circulating during flu season has an impact on how effective the flu shot will be.
“There is ongoing research to develop a universal flu shot that would be effective against all strains,” Harris said. “But that has not been realized, so until then, annual flu shots are strongly recommended by the CDC, NIH, and other health agencies.”
Preparing for the second wave
“It takes two weeks for the flu shot to actually work, so it’s important to get the influenza vaccine before flu season begins,” LaSalle said. “However, if you have not received your flu shot yet, it is never too late. As long as there is circulating flu in the community, it is recommended to get the flu shot.”
This is important to know because the flu usually comes in two waves — the fall and then the spring.
“There are typically two types of influenza circulating, types A and B,” LaSalle explained. “Type A more commonly circulates in the fall and winter, and type B more commonly in the spring. However this year, we are seeing both types circulating together.”
Looking out for the greater good
Even if you’re still not concerned about catching the flu yourself, there’s another reason for getting vaccinated besides your own health: the health of others.
“Vaccinating as many members of the community as possible provides something called ‘herd immunity,’” LaSalle said.
She went on to explain that not everyone can receive vaccines.
Some have allergies to vaccine ingredients. Some, like my daughter, are immunocompromised and therefore aren’t allowed to receive live vaccines like the ones for MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) or the chicken pox.
“In order to protect these people from these infections, we need to provide them with a bubble of immunity. This is achieved by vaccinating as many people as possible around them,” LaSalle said.
She explained that she understands why some may be hesitant, especially if they feel the flu shot has made them ill in the past.
“I think clinicians could do a better job of cautioning people about what to expect after flu shots, or any shot for that matter. In giving a vaccine, we are triggering the immune system. This can result in minor malaise, low-grade fever, and the feeling of something viral coming on,” she said.
While these symptoms only last a day or two, they’re very mild compared to the symptoms of the actual flu.
She said, “If we don’t caution people about what to expect, it is easy to see why some might think that they get ‘sick’ from the vaccine.”
However, while these minor symptoms may occur, they aren’t a sign of you actually becoming ill. They also typically fade quickly as your protection from the real flu, and the protection you provide to those around you, increases.
For myself and my daughter, I can say the flu shot will continue to be a high priority in our family as soon as it’s available every year. Yes, even though she’s still gotten the flu the last two years in a row.
For her, a severe case of the flu could truly could be a matter of life or death.
“When I vaccinate myself and my children, I am protecting you and your loved ones as well,” LaSalle said. “When we do not have enough levels of vaccination to provide herd immunity, we are all at risk.”