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Epidemiologist says the flu vaccine does work despite myths

With influenza season about to kick into high gear, it’s an important time to revisit the importance of getting vaccinated against the influenza virus. 

As with any disease that gets as much press as the flu does this time of year, there is an abundance of misinformation about influenza and the vaccination against it. 

The main misconception floating around is that the flu vaccine doesn’t work.

 It does work (it will reduce severe influenza by about 60 percent).The truth is it’s not as effective as some of our better immunizations, but not as effective does not mean not effective. The vaccine is still very good and can prevent you from getting the disease or developing serious complications from it.

The vaccination also helps you keep from spreading the disease to others. It provides some protection and may prevent complications due to influenza such as pneumonia, hospitalizations and even death. 

But that’s just one of many questions we get in regards to the flu. So here’s a review of some of the more common misconceptions and what we recommend:

1. The vaccine gave me the flu.
We’ve all heard someone say they got a flu shot and then got sick. What I teach people is that some people get sick (even with confirmed influenza infection) after they get vaccinated, but it’s not because of the shot. I explain that vaccinations occur during the fall and winter, a time when other respiratory viruses are circulating (and those won’t be prevented by the influenza vaccine). Also, it takes a few weeks to build up your immunity after the vaccine.  If you get vaccinated today and are exposed to influenza tomorrow, you can still get influenza after getting vaccinated. But it’s impossible to get the flu from the shot because there’s no live virus in it. 

2. I never get sick, so I don’t need the vaccine.
Getting immunized isn’t just for you, but for the people around you. We are in this together as a population, and we should try not to spread influenza to others. If you feel like you don’t ever get the flu, you still don’t want to spread it to others. Healthy adults can be infected with the virus and not have symptoms. You can also shed the virus before you become sick with it.

3.  I don’t need the vaccine because I am pregnant or am around someone with a weak immune system
The vaccination is safe for pregnant women and influenza infection can lead to complications in such patients, so you should be vaccinated if you are pregnant.  The risk from getting the flu is much worse for your fetus than the flu shot. In addition, living with someone with a weak immune system is a major reason to get vaccinated, as such persons may not have a strong immune response to the vaccine and will rely on their close contacts to not bring them into contact with the virus. 

4. Flu season is all hype by manufacturers of the vaccination. 
Flu season is real and typically runs from October to March.  Every year, many people become severely ill (enough to require admission to the hospital) and even die from influenza infection.  The perception that the “flu is not that bad and not a big deal” simply is not true for many people. 

So now that we’ve hopefully answered some of the rumors circulating about the flu and convinced you to get the vaccination, there are other things you can do to help prevent spreading the virus. 

It is primarily transported through respiratory sources such as coughing and sneezing. It’s just in the air and to a lesser degree our hands. The best way to prevent the flu is to get vaccinated. Then cover your mouth when you cough and sneeze and if you do get sick – stay home. Stay away from other people. That’s a hard thing for a lot of us to do, but if you don’t, you can get other people sick. And don’t forget to wash your hands!

To sum it up, the only thing predictable about influenza is its unpredictability. That is the root of many speculations and untruths about the flu and its vaccination. But keep in mind that the vaccination is worth getting. This year it is available in a mist, a high dose and a regular dose. The recommendation is that the mist has proven to work best in children, if you are over 65 you should get the high dose and everyone in between those two age groups should get the regular vaccination. 

Tom Talbot, MD MPH FSHEA FIDSA, is Associate Professor of Medicine and Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine; Chief Hospital Epidemiologist for Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Hospital Epidemiologist for Williamson Medical Center.


Posted on: 10/3/2013


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