By Linda Zheng
This past October, at the SASE National Conference in Schaumburg, Illinois, I got the chance to give a presentation on any topic that I was passionate about. Although I am passionate about many things, I opted to use this opportunity to spread a call-to-action on a matter that I believe to be of crucial importance but tends to fly under the radar — getting flu shots. As someone who works in healthcare, I have often been required to get my flu shot each flu season. However, I have always been a strong proponent of the fact that everyone should get their flu shot, not just us healthcare professionals. Many people don’t know the reasoning behind the importance of flu shots, though. Read on to find out why you should get yours!
It’s winter, AKA flu season. Everyone knows that the flu shot is something that you should get, but not everyone does, citing various reasons for why you forgot or can’t be bothered to this year. “I never get the flu”, “I heard the flu shot can give you the flu”, and “It doesn’t work” are all commonly heard excuses (which are all either bad reasons or false, by the way).
As it turns out, getting the annual flu vaccine is actually pretty important — not only to protect yourself, but also to protect the people around you.
What are vaccines/immunization?
The first time your body comes across the flu or any sort of germ that causes infection, it’s taken by surprise — like, “Woah, how did you get past all my skin and mucous and other barriers to infection?” It’s not prepared; it needs to take a few days to make white blood cells that will attack that specific invader before you start to get better. After that, your body doesn’t want to go through all the hard work it just did again in case you inhale some more of the same germ, so it keeps what we call “memory cells” that remember how to attack that specific germ. The next time you encounter that germ, those memory cells will recognize it right away and be like, “Hey body, I already know how to attack and defeat this germ so we can get rid of it right away this time.” (The flu is not actually this easy, which we’ll get to.) This is called immunization.
Vaccines basically trick your body into thinking that it’s encountering a new infection so that you can make these memory cells and be ready for the “next” time you get infected by whatever germ you got vaccinated for — AKA the first time you actually get sick with chickenpox, measles, hepatitis, etc. It does this by injecting dead, weakened, or chopped up pieces of the virus into your body that look “close enough” to the real deal to kick start your body into action, but won’t get you sick. So by getting a vaccine against a certain microbe (like influenza virus), you’ll have achieved immunization against that disease (the flu).
So why is the flu vaccine so tricky?
Well, the flu virus mutates a LOT. Different types, or strains, of the flu develop each year and replace the ones that existed previously. That’s why if you got a flu shot last year, you were probably protected against 2016 Flu, but the flu virus has changed since then and your body won’t recognize 2017 Flu. We don’t actually know what strain of influenza will be most prevalent this year, since we don’t know exactly how the virus changed, so scientists do a ton of research and actually make an educated guess as to which are most prevalent. Your annual flu shot will include inactivated pieces of 3 or 4 different strains of the flu. They do this every year and the CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older should get a flu shot annually. As such, we need to be constantly on the defense against the flu, especially in preparation for flu season (from as early as October to as late as May), because getting the flu sucks if you’re a normal typically-healthy person; but it sucks even more if you’re not.
Maybe you’ve never heard of this term before. Herd immunity is defined as: “a means of protecting a whole community from disease by immunizing a critical mass of its populace.” The term comes from a herd of cattle or sheep using its sheer numbers to protect its members from predators. So the more members of a human “herd” you have immunized against a certain disease, the better protected the whole populace (and especially those who cannot be immunized) from an outbreak of that disease.
The flu spreads mainly by droplets — made when people who have the flu cough, sneeze, or talk — that end up in the mouths or noses of those nearby. You can also get the flu by touching something with the flu virus on it and then touching your mouth, eyes, or nose. Most healthy adults can start infecting others with the flu 1 day BEFORE symptoms develop and up to 5–7 days after becoming sick. Let’s say you are allergic to the flu vaccine and you can’t get a flu shot. If you interact with 20 people each day, and 18 of them are vaccinated against the flu, the chances of you catching the flu from any of them is going to be greatly reduced compared to if only 2 of them are vaccinated.
This becomes critically important for little kids, the elderly, people with underlying health problems, and pregnant women. These categories of people have the greatest risk of getting sick or dying from the flu. Additionally, flu shots are actually less effective in children under the age of 2 and adults over 65. You probably either have or know someone with little kids or elderly parents/grandparents. If you get the flu shot each year, you’re not only protecting yourself but you’re protecting your grandma, your grandpa, your kids, your nieces and nephews and cousins.
Herd immunity is harder to achieve with influenza because the flu changes so much that we need shots every year. Ideally, we need 80–90% immunity among the general population to achieve herd immunity and protect those who are most vulnerable.
Myths about vaccines & the flu shot
As I’m sure you’ve heard, there’s a lot of myths about vaccines floating around out there. There’s also a lot of myths about the flu shot in particular. So I’m going to rapid-fire debunk the biggest ones for you quickly right here:
1. Natural immunity > Vaccine Immunity
The truth is that the dangers of acquiring natural immunity FAR outweigh any relative benefits. Take measles for example. If you contract measles, that means you face a 1 in 500 chance of death, while the number of people who have had severe allergic reactions from an MMR vaccine is less than 1 in a million. This is not the way to go.
2. Vaccines cause autism
This is probably the biggest misconception about vaccines. VACCINES DO NOT CAUSE AUTISM.
Let me say that again: VACCINES DO NOT CAUSE AUTISM.
This myth began with a paper published in 1998 where British researchers stated that the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine caused autism. This paper has been found to be seriously flawed and fraudulent (including the fact that they looked at only 12 children and the researchers had undisclosed financial conflicts of interest). The paper has since been retracted from the journal.
3. The flu shot gives you the flu
As I stated previously, the flu shot has DEAD, or literally chopped up pieces, of the flu virus. There are no live viruses in the flu shot. It is literally impossible to get the flu from the flu shot. It IS possible to get mild flu-like symptoms after the shot that go away quickly — this is likely your body just reacting to the fact that you got a vaccine, not you having the flu. It’s also possible that you got sick after getting a flu shot, but it wasn’t the flu, or that you later contracted a different strain of flu not covered in the flu shot you received, which is unfortunate but still doesn’t mean you got the flu from the flu shot.
Another factor to consider is that getting full immunity to the flu takes about 2 weeks, so that means that you could get infected in the meantime — this is why it’s important to get your flu shot early!
4. The flu shot doesn’t work
Studies have shown that flu vaccines effectively reduce the risk of the flu. The CDC reports that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by 40–60% among the overall population when the flu vaccine is well-matched to the circulating flu viruses.
So let’s split the difference and say there’s a 50/50 chance the flu shot will work this year. Let’s also say that come January, you come into contact with the flu virus — would you rather DEFINITELY get sick, or have a 50/50 chance of staying healthy?
Even if you get a different strain of the flu than what was in this year’s vaccine, it’s possible that the flu shot could decrease the severity of your symptoms.
5. It’s too late in the season!
And lastly, sometimes it gets to be January and you think to yourself, well, now it’s too late.
This isn’t true! The flu season can actually last as late as MAY and often times peaks after January. It’s better late than never. As long as it’s still flu season, you’re still susceptible!
Conclusion: Get your flu shot!
If you take away one thing from this post, let it be this — get your flu shot! It’s quick, it’s easy, and — with most insurances — it’s free. It benefits you AND the people around you. This year, let (at least part of) your holiday presents to your loved ones be herd immunity!
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