Dear Doc health column: Should you get a flu shot?
October 29, 2012
Once again, the “flu” season is upon us and it is time to get your flu vaccine. As the world continues to revolve around us, Influenza is just a reminder that we are not in control of the world, but merely a part of it, and subject to its influences and control.
I’ve never had the flu. Should I still get a flu shot?
Healthy in Vail
That is perhaps the easiest question I can answer. Simply, the answer is yes, the flu shot is recommended by the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention)for everyone over 6 months of age. That recommendation comes from lots of information, research and a long history of what happens to people when they become infected by the flu virus. It really comes down to the same reasoning we use to make most of our decisions. Is it better to do something or not? What is the risk of one decision compared to the consequence of another?
Like a balance scale, the risk and resulting consequences of influence rest on one side while the risks and consequences of getting vaccinated balance on the other. There is no doubt the flu side quickly tips the scales and weighs down the vaccine side. Here are some facts:
From the CDC website, the question is asked “are flu vaccines safe?”
“This season’s flu vaccine is expected to have a similar safety profile as past seasonal flu vaccines. Over the years, hundreds of millions of Americans have safely received seasonal flu vaccines. The most common side effects are soreness, redness, tenderness or swelling where the flu shot was given and nasal congestion after the flu vaccine nasal spray.”
The 2011-’12 flu season had 20,474 reported cases, which is up 15 percent from the 5-year median number. The flu seems to be increasing. It is not known whether this is due to better reporting or surveillance. That significant increase comes from people 65 years of age and older and children under the age of 4.
The reported number of deaths from influenza was close to the 5 year average last year, and half the number of deaths reported in 2007-’08 and 2009-’10.
The number of deaths each year from the flu vary widely, from 3,000 to nearly 50,000 in the United States alone. It is a very hard number to actually measure, because rarely is the flu reported on a death certificate. Rather people die from complications of the flu, which is reported as another illness or condition.
In comparison, 34,000 people die each year in motor vehicle accidents. That is a similar to the number of influenza deaths and actually represents 1 death for every 10,000 people. Aggressive safety measures such as driver education, anti-lock brakes, air bags and seat belts has decreased the number of deaths per vehicle mile traveled to a 90 year low! It is no wonder you hear so much about getting vaccinated, covering your mouth when you cough and washing your hands. The more people who get vaccinated will very clearly decrease that alarming number of deaths just as driving has become safer through preventative programs and equipment.
The flu vaccine is readily available at your doctor’s office, local pharmacies and through Eagle County Public Health department. There are different vaccines depending on your age. Shots are available for all, but the new intradermal vaccine is only for those age 18 to 64. People 65 years and older have the option of a stronger dose of vaccine, which may help people with a weaker immune system. There is also a nasal spray vaccine for people ages 2 to 50.
The only people who should not receive the flu vaccine are those who have had a serious allergic reaction to a prior vaccine, have a severe egg allergy (more than a rash), and those who have developed Guillain-Barre Syndrome from a prior flu vaccine. If you are acutely sick, it is also best to wait to get better before receiving the flu vaccine. If you are not sure about whether you should get the flu vaccine, ask your doctor or pharmacist, and balance your own scale.
Please keep your questions coming in. The only bad question is the unanswered one. Send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Drew Werner is a medical staff leader at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs, a family physician at TotalHealth Care and the Eagle County health officer. He lives in Eagle with his family. Email comments about this column to email@example.com.