Flu Shot

11/04/2014

Remember to Get Your Flu Shot
Healthy Living - November 4, 2014
William Sturrock, MD

 
Autumn . . . the daylight fades into growing darkness.  The first frost kills the summer flowers and the leaves begin to fall.  It’s easy to understand how our forbears throughout the Northern Hemisphere associated this season with decay and death.  Last week’s Halloween festivities with children going door-to-door dressed as ghouls and goblins has its cultural roots in the sense of fear and dread that our ancestors had for the coming winter.

And for good reason: for most animal species winter is a trying time that separates those able to survive from the weak, infirm, and aged.  The same is still true for modern humans.  However, we do have a number of advantages over those who lived in these climates before us.  It’s not just the warmer clothes, drier homes and larger stores of food that make the survival difference.  Rather, it is our complex social networks together with an evolution of technology that these networks foster, which form our decisive advantage over winter’s threat.  We have the modern miracle of roads that get plowed and salted after every storm, hospitals that stay open 24/7 to care for the sick or injured, and the reliable delivery of heating fuel right up our very driveway to keep the cold at bay.

Still, there is one simple act that each person should take in their winter preparations every year that can make a real difference in chances of whether many will live or die this winter.  It’s not buying long underwear or filling a cabinet with the fixings for hot toddies – though I can’t argue with this.  Rather, it is the mundane act of getting a flu shot.  Why is this so important at this time of year?  Well, we know that every winter in the US alone, about 30,000 Americans will die after contracting influenza.  The number does vary depending on which strain is active, but it’s a heck of a lot more folks than will die on US shores from Ebola, terrorist attacks, or a lot of other terror-inspiring bringers of death combined and multiplied by 10,000.
Yet even though we may understand this intellectually, many of us put off that shot in the arm because we think that little flu-bug isn’t going to bring us down.  Well it’s usually true, influenza may not kill you this winter, but when you get it, you become the vector to spread it to your families, friends, coworkers, and other member of your social networks.  Eventually, the weaker members of our communities: young infants, those with chronic diseases, or the elderly will receive the virus courtesy of your unwitting delivery and the rest is obiturarial history.
Ironically, it’s that same social network of checkout clerks at the grocery store handling your money, the postal delivery person having you sign for your Christmas package, or the furnace repairman who takes your check, that is getting exposed to your influenza and then spreading it unintentionally throughout the community until it finds the weakest link.  That same social network that keeps you fed, warm and safe during the winter is now at risk from your decision not to get the shot.

So please, the next time you begin to think about tarping your woodpile, getting your snow tires or finding your winter socks, take the next step in winter preparation that can make a real difference to real people in our communities – get your flu shot.

Frequently Asked Questions:

1.  If influenza commonly causes fever, muscle aches, and a cough that generally lasts for 5-7 days, how does it cause a person’s death?

Answer: Generally a person with impaired immune function will be a risk for getting a secondary bacterial pneumonia following the initial viral flu exposure which can then be fatal.

2. I know that even if I get the flu shot, I can get influenza and sometimes it seems worse than when I did not get the shot, so why bother?

Answer: While it’s true that the flu shot may only give you partial immunity, generally those who get it will shed a lot less virus, and have a shorter illness, less chance of developing pneumonia and will spread it to a lot fewer people.

3.  What is the percentage of people who usually get a flu shot every year?

Answer: The number of children from 6 months to 17 years of age getting flu shots has steadily increased from 43% in 2009 to 58% in 2013.  However, the adult rate has only increased slightly from 40 to 42% during that time frame.

4.  Are there groups of people who should not get the flu shot? 

Answer: For individuals under six months, or those with a severe allergy to any component of the flu shot, it is not advised.  Fortunately, there is an eggless version for those with a history of egg allergy, as well as several other types of shots or nasal sprays available, so you should discuss with your PCP if you have concerns.