It’s Time to Worry about the Flu
Community pharmacists provide vaccinations in many states. This year’s flu vaccine became available in August. I was talking with one community pharmacist back before the leaves changed colors and she was just not ready for her flu shot. “Halloween is the time for flu shots.” A nearby independent community pharmacy recently advertised “Zombie vaccine – – now with flu protection”. But Halloween 2015 is now history … it’s time to start worrying about your flu vaccine.
If you talk about flu vaccines with other people, you find a variety of opinions about how serious influenza is and the importance of getting a yearly flu vaccine. For many, it’s just the time of year – around Halloween – to get your flu vaccine. I had a patient at the clinic earlier this week who was reluctant to take his medicines, but insisted on receiving his flu vaccine. Of course we obliged. Other folks express no fear of influenza with the approach of the German philosopher Nietzsche, “what does not kill me, makes me stronger”. Nietzche died in 1900 of pneumonia, another vaccine-preventable disease.
Influenza is the virus that causes the flu.
In my experience, two classes of people have the strongest feelings towards influenza: historians and those who work in intensive care units. And there is a good reason for each.
Historians will remember World War I as the war to end all wars. Around 10 million people died in WWI, but what followed was even more deadly. As the war was ending in 1918, an influenza pandemic was starting. The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 infected around 500 million people worldwide and killed far more people than died in WWI. Influenza changes slightly each year, and with today’s global travel, a new viral strain could spread quickly and create the next pandemic. For epidemiologists – those who follow disease patterns – an influenza pandemic is an ongoing possibility to be prevented through vaccination.
Influenza in 1918 was unusual in that it disproportionately killed healthy young adults through an immune over-response. Those at greatest risk with influenza are usually the very young, the very old, and those with weakened immune systems. No matter how many patients contract the flu each year, the serious ones end up in hospital intensive care units. Those who see these patients suffer and sometimes die recognize that influenza can be far more serious than most people realize.
One of the key characteristics of influenza is that it is unpredictable.
- The virus changes slightly over time (which is why there is a new vaccine each year), but every so many years the slight changes in the virus add up to make it more contagious or more severe.
- The flu vaccine for each year represents the best guess as to which strains will be most important; sometimes the predicted strains work out to be important for the current year, sometimes not.
- Vaccination can be less effective in the current season but still provide some protection against future influenza strains.
- Less effective means the vaccine may not prevent you from catching the flu, but may still keep your illness much less severe and keep you from worrying those folks who work in the intensive care units.
The influenza vaccination is literally your best “shot” at avoiding the flu this season. It takes a week or two to develop immunity following flu vaccination, so if you are eligible, now is the time to decide on your flu shot.
Your community pharmacist is there to help, and will be happy to talk to you about influenza vaccination. In addition to the “flu shot”, there is an influenza vaccination administered as a nasal spray. Your primary care provider or pharmacist can help you choose and can administer your vaccination. For many patients, vaccination is free. Take care of yourself this holiday and flu season.