1. So let’s hear the truth Dr. Saggar, can the flu vaccine can give you the flu as some people claim?
ABSOLUTELY NO: There is simply no way that the flu vaccine can give you the flu. It’s just impossible.
- I often hear people say “but I got the flu vaccine and still got the flu”. Well maybe. And maybe not. It takes a few weeks to get protection, so the flu could have developed in you before the antibody response to the vaccine. The vaccine does not protect to the numerous other viral infections that circulate each winter, so perhaps you had a different viral infection but thought it was the flu and then you went ‘viral’ on social media about how the vaccine was a really bad thing!
O.K. Let’s play that game. What if people said:
- ‘I never wear seat belts, and I never get killed in car crashes’;
- ‘I never use condoms, and I never become infected with sexually transmitted diseases’;
- ‘I eat red meat seven times a week, only exercise once a year, and I’ve never had a heart attack or a stroke.’
Despite the scientific impossibility of getting the flu from the flu vaccines, this widespread flu myth still won’t die. Experts suspect two reasons for its persistence.
1. people mistake the side effects of the vaccine for flu. While side effects to the vaccine these days tend to be a sore arm, in the past, side effects often felt like mild symptoms of the flu.
2. flu season coincides with a time of year when bugs causing colds and other respiratory illnesses are in the air. Many people get the vaccine and then, within a few days, SOME will get sick no matter what, with an unrelated cold virus. Some of these people immediately blame the innocent flu vaccine that they just received a day or a few days earlier, rather than their co-worker with a runny nose and cough. It’s statistically guaranteed that of all the 135 million people in the USA who get the flu shot every year, some are going to get sick anyway, either with the flu that had already infected them before the vaccine was given, or with another virus or bacteria, and then this vocal minority is going to spread the falsehood that “the flu shot gives people the flu”, which is utter nonsense. Most doctors know this. All hospitals know this and that is why 99% of healthcare workers, including medstudents and nursing students, are required to get the flu vaccine if they are to continue employment.
2. Surely getting seasonal flu is just annoying but mostly harmless?
Unfortunately, many think of the flu as a very bad cold, but it’s much worse than that.
In addition to the congestion and cough, you’ll have nasty body aches and fever and you usually feel terrible. You feel like you’ve been hit by a truck.
Aside from the short-term misery and lost workdays, flu can have more serious implications. Although, most people who get the seasonal flu recover just fine, the seasonal flu hospitalizes 200,000 people in the U.S. each year. It kills between 3,000 and 50,000 people each year. That’s close to the number of women killed by breast cancer each year.
3. But isn’t flu only dangerous for the elderly or people with chronic medical conditions?
It’s true that the people most likely to become seriously ill or die from the seasonal flu are aged over age 65, but flu is risky for anyone, even healthy young adults. Some of the most susceptible people to seasonal influenza are young children.
Children under 2 have some of the highest rates of hospitalization from seasonal flu. Children under 6 months are at the most risk from the seasonal flu because their immune system is too undeveloped to properly process the vaccine.
To protect infants from the flu, keep babies away from people who have the flu. Parents and caretakers of infants should get vaccinated, and first time parents are [tellingly] far more willing to get a flu shot than other young healthy people. Perhaps people will do what they know is the right thing more often to protect a loved one, like their own newborn, than they will to protect themselves.
4. What would you say to young and healthy people, who think they don’t need to worry about getting the vaccine?
First of all, we should all get the seasonal flu vaccine. Sure, if you’re in good health, you’ll probably recover from the seasonal flu just fine if you get it. But why suffer through the flu if you can avoid it? Second, protecting yourself isn’t the only reason to get vaccinated.
Healthy adults forget that while they themselves might be at low risk for getting serious flu complications, other people in their family might not. If you have a small child at home, or an older parent, your failure to get yourself vaccinated could endanger them.
And that’s true on a larger, societal level. People with the weakest defenses, like children under 6 months, can’t get the flu vaccine. Their safety depends on the rest of us getting immunized. Let me rephrase that: THE SAFETY OF THOSE AROUND US WHO ARE LESS STRONG, DEPENDS ON THE STRONGEST AMONG US GETTING VACCINATED.
5. How do you respond to those who say vaccines are dangerous?
In recent years, there’s been growing mistrust of vaccines, including the flu vaccine. Some believe that there could be a link between vaccines -- specifically the ingredient thimerosal -- and developmental disorders in children, like autism. However, there is no evidence that vaccines cause autism, and many healthcare professionals feel we’re losing sight of how important vaccines are.
Vaccines are, arguably, the greatest medical advance in history AND IN HOMELAND SECURITY. They’ve prevented more illness and death than any other implemented strategy or protocol.
If you’re still concerned despite the evidence, you should know that there are thimerosal-free flu vaccines available. In fact, every year, manufacturers produce more of this vaccine than people use. If you want your child to get it, just ask your doctor.
The flu vaccine is not out best vaccine for at least three reasons:
(1) every year the immunologists developing the vaccine have to make an educated guess as to which which influenza strains will be circulating 9 months in the future. The better the guess, the better the protection the vaccine should provide. Some years they choose better than others. But often the match between the vaccine and the disease is not optimal, so vaccine efficacy can be decreased. The vaccine works best when there is a good match between the vaccine and circulating strain of influenza.
(2) response to the vaccine is not 100%. The older and those with weaker immunity are the least likely to develop a good antibody response to the vaccine, and yet they need this vaccine the most.
(3) vaccination rates are often suboptimal to get benefit in populations, i.e. herd immunity. The elderly will more likely benefit if they are not exposed to influenza at all rather than relying of vaccine mediated protection. It may be more important if those around them, say their health care provider or family, receives the vaccine and as a result does not pass flu on to more vulnerable people. But we rarely get vaccination rates at levels for herd immunity to kick in.
There are some anti-vaccine people who seem to require that vaccines either be perfect, with 100% efficacy and 100% safe, or they are not worth taking.
The influenza vaccine is not 100% efficacious in preventing disease, but it is as close to 100% safe, and much safer than the disease.
Or you can look at the preponderance of data, with all the flaws, nuance, subtleties and qualifiers, and conclude the flu vaccine is of benefit. The vaccine decreases the probability of morbidity and mortality. It is a good thing.
6. Does cold weather cause the flu?
No matter what your grandma may have said, going outside in the winter without a hat or warm coat does NOT increase your risk of flu. While there might seem to be a connection -- since flu season coincides with colder months in the U.S. -- there isn’t. Flu season is the same throughout the whole country: even if it’s freezing in Minnesota while still warm in Florida. Colder weather might increase the risk of flu in one way: We do come into closer contact with other people because we’re all stuck inside. That does make it easier for the virus to spread.
7. I’ve heard people say that if you haven’t gotten the seasonal flu vaccine by November, there’s no point getting vaccinated at all. Is that true?
While supplies of vaccine used to run out by November, that’s not the case anymore. Nowadays, there should be enough vaccine for anyone who wants it, and you should be able to get it as late as December or January. Besides, the flu often doesn’t hit its peak until February or sometimes as late as March. The flu vaccine will protect you for the strain that is going around, even if it’s 6 months later, so I say get it as early as possible, like this week!
No matter what month it is, if you haven’t had your flu vaccine yet, go get it. You could spare yourself -- and your family -- a lot of misery.
8. So where is the best place to get a flu shot?
You can get your influenza vaccine from your local pharmacy, although they’ll typically charge you $30, which is another annoying part of getting a vaccine. One thing we do at all four of our clinics is to offer patients who comes in for any other problem, such as a sprained ankle, a flu shot, at no extra charge, meaning if their insurance doesn’t pay, the patient won’t have to pay anything more for the shot. Yes, it costs us, but we believe in doing whatever we can to get the whole community vaccinated, so this is our strategy, as well as a marketing ploy to come to us for your illness or injury, instead of anywhere else! You can find out more at STLFluShots.com