The surprising reason you need a flu shot

When I offer flu shots, most people refuse.

“Never had the flu, I’ll take my chances.” I’m told. “I know someone who got the flu from the shot.” (You can’t.) And this year, “I heard flu shots don’t work.”

We need better flu protection. The measles vaccine, for example, struts a consistent, robust and reassuring 97 percent protection rate. The flu vaccine, with its "maybe we got it this year – or not" protection rate, makes science look like the fumbling guesswork of a colorblind chameleon.

Personally, I have two irrefutable reasons to get vaccinated.

First, as a physician, I pride myself on taking one for the team. It shows patients that I care. After my flu shot, I wear my Hello Kitty Band-Aid like a keloid war wound.

My second reason is now 19 years old. When my son was young, I spent many hair-raising hours, watching helplessly, as he wheezed and choked on snot. It was Russian roulette; any simple cold could trigger a severe asthma attack.

So if you’re healthy and you want to take a chance, the question then becomes, “Can those around you take a chance with you?” In the world of preventive medicine, keeping one person from getting sick can prevent many more from getting sick, like a chain reaction. 

At any given time, multiple flu viruses circulate. Some respond to vaccines better than others. Currently, three types of flu viruses are circulating in Cuyahoga County. Our season usually peaks the weeks before and after New Year, and may go on until spring.

And the flu vaccine is still the “first and best way” to prevent flu, according to the CDC. A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics showed that flu vaccines significantly reduced flu-related deaths among children. For those considered high risk, the risk was halved.

Like other infections, even with the best hygiene practices, once flu starts, it’s hard to contain. Let’s say a 7-year-old starts a fever and cough on Wednesday; the little cesspool, who’s been hugging and kissing Nana, spitballing her brother and fellow first-graders, has effectively been spreading H3N2 flu virus since Tuesday.

Oral oseltamivir (brand name Tamiflu, $52 to $160 on GoodRx) and inhaled zanamivir (Relenza, $65 on GoodRx) might reduce Nana’s chance of coming down with the flu. But if she’s already developed flu-like symptoms, starting these medications within two days of onset might reduce her symptoms by a half day. It’s unclear if these medications reduce severe complications. 

Flu shots are one of many “pneumonia” vaccines. Ask your doctors about vaccines for pneumococcal infection, zoster (shingles) and pertussis (whooping cough). For example, in adults, pertussis is a frequent cause of protracted cough that lasts weeks or months.  

Now in college, my 19-year-old has recently adopted a new lifestyle (vegan), developed a new allergy (to any classes that begin before 10:30 a.m.) and declared a new major (as in “Saving the World by Sustainability”).

I wonder quietly if he wouldn’t consider a major that sustains himself first. But you know what: He’s happy – and snot-free. Let it go.

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Volume 10, Issue 2, Posted 9:22 AM, 01.23.2018