Every year the great flu-vaccine debate starts up. Physicians and medical experts urge people to receive their annual vaccine, and individuals start speaking-up about their own experiences and whether or not they think the flu vaccine is a good idea.
In the one corner you have physicians arguing that infants, toddlers, all school-aged children, the elderly and the chronically ill should receive their annual vaccinations. In the opposing corner stand concerns over the vaccine’s effectiveness and potential risks of causing autism in young children. But what is true and what is either urban legend or out-of-date medical guidance?
To get us started, let’s discuss some reasons physicians want you to get the flu vaccine each year.
The more people vaccinated, the better we all are. Many childhood vaccinations are given to help develop a social or group immunity and prevent epidemics (e.g. Hepatitis B and Polio), and annual flu vaccines can help in the same way. When the influenza virus is introduced to an office building or institution where the workers and/or residents are not vaccinated it can run rampant, spreading through airborne droplets and infecting people left and right. Worse yet, the more people that get infected the more likely it is that a mutated strain will be re-introduced and people who were sick once will get sick again.
However, if everyone exposed to the virus was vaccinated, most would not get sick and those that did would feel the effects for a couple of days instead of a couple of weeks, and the virus would be much less likely to mutate and be re-introduced.
“Secondary Infections” can lead to hospitalization. Most people are able to get over the flu within seven to 10 days, but some develop secondary bacterial infections that can become quite severe and require hospitalization and IV antibiotics. In many cases the patients who develop these infections are chronically ill, but even an otherwise healthy individual can develop a severe respiratory infection after contracting the flu. An annual flu vaccine substantially reduces your risk of a secondary infection because it helps prevent the primary infection – influenza.
People with chronic respiratory illness are especially at risk. Diseases like asthma and emphysema can become exasperated by a severe influenza infection and patients with a history of either are much more likely to require hospitalization and even intubation if they contract the flu. For them, an annual flu vaccine should be one of their highest priorities this time of year.
Now that we’ve discussed the benefits of the flu vaccine, let’s dispel some of the misconceptions about it.
Vaccination is not a guarantee. The influenza virus is so common in humans that we are introduced to hundreds of new strains each year, which is why each year requires a new vaccine. Unfortunately, the virus continues to mutate and change after the vaccine is produced, and it is possible that you will be exposed to a strain you have not been vaccinated against, which means you can still get infected. However even if you are infected your body will be much quicker to recognize and fight off the virus if you have been vaccinated against a similar strain. That is why it is important to get vaccinated every year.
You are not instantly protected. As with all vaccines, it takes time for the body to develop and coordinate its resistance to the virus. The influenza vaccine takes up to 30 days to become fully effective.
There is no "24-hour" flu. In fact, there is no 24-hour viral infection. Any viral infection will take your body between seven and 10 days to overcome. When people get “the stomach flu,” what they are really suffering from is food poisoning.
Vaccinations do not increase the risk of autism. As a parent, I can certainly understand the concerns with putting our children at risk for developing autism. It may be helpful, though, to trace these concerns to their roots.
On Oct. 3, 1999 CNN aired a television program titled A question of harm. In the program the parents of a little boy and their physician claim that the boy developed autism just two weeks after receiving his childhood vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella. The program resulted in a public awareness and fear that lead many researchers to take on the task of proving or disproving the link. The question has since been answered definitively, the most current research found no increased risk of autism among vaccinated children and the Center for Disease Control has scientifically disproven the link between vaccinations and autism. Furthermore, autism is believed to be a genetic disease predisposition with an environmental component other than vaccination.
It is important to keep in mind that these vaccines are given for very good reason. The impact of a measles, mumps or rubella epidemic among our children would be devastating, which is why I advise all of my patients to have their children vaccinated, but even if you choose not to get vaccinated, there are still things you can do to shorten the length of infection such as eating more plants, sleeping at least 8 hours nightly and exercising regularly.
Antibiotics don’t work, but anti-virals do. It is certainly true that antibiotics have no affect on viral infections like influenza, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be treated. Anti-viral medications available through your physician can shorten the length of the infection by a few days when taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.
Some people should not be vaccinated. Anyone who is severely ill, has a food allergy to eggs, has had an allergic reaction (hives, itchiness or difficulty breathing) to the vaccine in the past or is immunocompromised should consult their physician before receiving a flu vaccine.