Flu vaccine is now available nationwide in most doctor’s offices and drugstores. Many parents wonder whether they should receive the flu vaccine and whether they should have their children receive the vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that every person aged six months and older get the flu vaccine as soon as it is available this fall.
What is the flu?
The flu is really a contagious respiratory illness that influenza viruses cause. Though many people consider it something that just happens, it is a serious threat to public health that causes mild to severe illness, and can even lead to death.
Will I get sick from the flu shot?
One common misperception that keeps people from receiving a vaccination against the flu is that the shot can give you the flu. In reality, the viruses in the flu shot are dead, so you cannot get the flu from a flu shot. Possible minor side effects include soreness, redness, or swelling where the shot was given, low-grade fever, and aches. If you know someone who appears to have gotten the flu from the flu shot, the person either was exposed to the virus prior to receiving the shot or was exposed to the shot before the antibodies from the shot were fully protective of that person. A person’s body produces the antibodies about two weeks after receipt of the shot.
The general vaccine debate
It is no secret that vaccines are, in general, a topic of debate, especially when talking about children’s vaccinations. Some people believe that the flu vaccine is just one more needle to avoid. This belief is, in large part, spurred by the belief that there is a link between the preservative thimerosal that is in vaccinations and autism spectrum disorders. The scientific paper that made this assertion, however, has been disproved and the opposite has recently been scientifically proved. See this article for details.
There are, however, thimerosal-free vaccines readily available. To be sure you are getting yourself and your child the version of the shot you want, reference this CDC chart, which details the amount of thimerosal in each version of this year’s vaccine.
Will I be protected?
If you get the flu shot, you will be protected against the three influenza strains (H1N1, H3N2, and an influenza B) contained in the shot. The CDC recommends getting the shot as soon as it becomes available, noting that you will be protected for the entire season regardless of when you get the shot.
For children receiving the vaccine for the first time, it is very important that they get the shot as soon as possible. The reason for the hurry is that these children need two shots to be fully protected and the doses must be given four weeks apart. If a child receives the first does now, that child will be fully protected before flu season kicks into high gear.
Like most things in life, the flu shot is not a sure thing. There are many strains of influenza virus and scientists do their best to predict which three strains are most likely to be the most prevalent during any given flu season. Early each year, scientists from around the world meet as part of the World Health Organization to determine which influenza viruses are likely to be most prevalent. The decision of that group greatly influences the United States government’s decision about which viruses to include in American vaccines.
If the scientists predicted poorly which viruses are active during the flu season, you will still receive some protection from the influenza virus you do contract. According to the CDC, this is because “antibodies made in response to vaccination with one strain of flu viruses can provide protection against different, but related strains. A less than ideal match may result in reduced vaccine effectiveness against the variant viruses, but it can still provide some protection against influenza illness. In addition, it's important to remember that the flu vaccine contains three virus strains so that even when there is a less than ideal match or lower effectiveness against one strain, the vaccine may protect against the other two viruses.”
Specific danger to children
Contracting the flu is dangerous for children. Each year an average of 20,000 children under age five are hospitalized because of influenza complications, but severe complications from flu are most common in children younger than two years old. Flu seasons vary in severity, however some children will die from flu each year. From the 2003-2004 flu season to last year’s flu season, the CDC received reports of 46 to 153 children’s deaths per year. During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, reports of more than 300 children’s deaths came to the CDC during from April 26, 2009 to May 22, 2010.
People with chronic health issues like asthma and diabetes are at an even higher risk than the general population of developing serious complications from an influenza virus. This is, again, especially true for children.
Children under the age of six months cannot get the flu vaccine. If your child falls into this age group, it is even more important that you get the vaccine for yourself and anyone who comes into regular contact with your child to ensure the child’s protection. This age group is especially vulnerable to the viruses.
An ounce of prevention…
Other than getting the flu shot, you can protect yourself and your family by practicing good hygeine and common courtesy. Flu mainly spreads by respiratory droplets, which enter the air in the largest amounts through coughs and sneezes. This includes when someone sneezes, touches an item, and then someone else touches that item and their own eyes, nose, or mouth. Some viruses can live for two hours or longer on such surfaces.
Wash your hands, especially before touching your face or anything you eat. Wash with soap and water for 15 to 20 seconds. (A good rule of thumb is to sing the Happy Birthday Song or your ABCs while scrubbing.) When soap and water are not available and you need to touch your face, use alcohol-based disposable hand wipes or gel sanitizers.
If you find this article later in flu season, it is not too late to get yourself and your child vaccinated. In fact, National Influenze Vaccination Week is December 5-11, 2010. The CDC plans the awareness week for that time of year to encourage those who have not yet been vaccinated to get the shot.
Lauren Reid is not a medical professional. Consult your doctor and your child’s pediatrician before receiving any voluntary medical care.