DR. CHRISANNA MINK
Special to the Journal
Pumpkin spice has invaded lattes and daily life, and so have excuses to avoid the flu vaccine. But, just like your favorite fall flavors, it’s time to embrace the flu vaccine as part of your autumn ritual.
“It’s just the flu,” “I got the flu from the shot,” and “I never get sick,” are some of the reasons spewed to skip the vaccines.
Let’s examine some of those misperceptions, as well as the heightened “flu fear” that make flu vaccinations during the COVID-19 pandemic even more important.
A viral “twindemic” paralyzing an already strained healthcare system is the biggest worry for health experts. Medical personnel and resources are decimated after 20 months of the pandemic, and there’s little reserve to take on influenza.
“It’s just the flu” are the words of someone who has forgotten their last bout with “true flu.” Many mild colds and intestinal illnesses are dubbed “the flu,” but classic influenza, caused by one of the influenza A or B strains, is characterized by abrupt onset of fever, chills, cough, or other respiratory symptoms that can knock a person flat.
Influenza is a serious illness, which can cause severe complications such as pneumonia, neurologic problems, or death. Infants, young children, pregnant women, individuals with underlying health conditions, and those 65 and older are more at risk for severe disease.
But influenza can attack anyone.
In 2018-19, a moderate season in the U.S., 35 million people became ill, nearly 500,000 were hospitalized and 34,200 people died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. An estimated 480 deaths were among children, younger than 18, many of whom were healthy kids. In Stanislaus County, between 10 and 20 people, including one to three children, die every year due to influenza.
With a vaccine with only 50 percent efficacy, many of those illness and deaths could have been prevented.
Next, let’s debunk the myth that the flu shot causes the flu. That can’t happen.
The injectable vaccines are prepared with purified proteins, not a whole virus, so it cannot cause infection. However, about one-third of people have side effects, such as injection-site reaction, fever, headache, or muscle aches. These are generally mild and short-lived.
The nasal spray flu vaccine contains weakened strains of the viruses and can cause a mild flu-like illness. Serious adverse events, such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome, an immune disorder attacking nerve cells, are rare. These events are estimated to occur at a rate of about one in a million after vaccinations and have also been reported after flu infections.
The “I never get sick” statement is optimistic and not likely true. Nearly everyone has had at least one case of influenza by age 8. Every year, school-age children have between six and 12 respiratory illnesses, and healthy adults have two or three common colds.
During the time of COVID-19, any respiratory illness is alarming. The SARS-CoV-2 and influenza viruses cause many similar symptoms, making it difficult to tell them apart. But distinguishing them is critical, as treatments for the individual and potential public health implications are quite different.
One thing COVID-19 and influenza have in common – both are vaccine-preventable.
Yet, in Stanislaus County, about one-third of residents get the seasonal flu vaccine and, to date, only 54 percent of those eligible are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Flu vaccines are recommended by the CDC for everyone 6 months and older, unless they have a contraindication, which is any condition that prohibits getting the vaccine. Influenza immunization protects the vaccine recipient and, in turn, limits the spread of flu to their contacts and the community, decreasing the chance of a flu epidemic and the feared twindemic.
The COVID-19 and influenza vaccines can be given at the same time, according to the CDC.
Although no vaccine is 100 percent protective, death is reduced by at least 50 percent for those who catch the flu if they’ve been vaccinated and by at least 10-fold among people immunized against COVID-19.
Skipping vaccinations is like driving drunk, without a seat belt, going the wrong way on the highway. It endangers you and those around you.
— Dr. ChrisAnna Mink is a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and a consultant for Legacy Health Endowment, a Turlock-based nonprofit health organization.