By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News
Health officials encourage everyone six months and older to get a flu shot every year, because it’s your best defense when it comes to fighting influenza. But official encouragement goes only so far. In fact, most Kentucky adults and nearly half of its children don’t get vaccinated in a typical year.
The last flu season was considered one of the deadliest flu seasons ever, killing an estimated 80,000 people nationwide – 325 in Kentucky, where only 41 percent of adults got a flu shot and 55 percent of children did, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Kentucky continues to be under an influenza threat the CDC defines as “regional,” with confirmed cases in 13 of the state’s 17 health regions. So far this season, Kentucky has had 118 confirmed cases of the flu and two deaths from it, according to the state Department for Public Health‘s weekly influenza surveillance report.
Many reasons are given for not getting a flu shot. Some don’t get vaccinated because they believe it causes the flu. Not so. Some believe it’s better to get the flu than the flu vaccine. Not so. Or they don’t understand that they need to get a new vaccine every year, or say it doesn’t work well enough to bother with it.
The CDC debunks all these myths and misconceptions. Here’s what it says:
Can a vaccine give you the flu? The answer is unequivocally no. Flu shots cannot give you the disease. Flu shots are made two ways, with an “inactivated” or killed flu virus or by using only part of a flu virus to produce the vaccine. In other words, there is nothing in the vaccines that can infect you.
And while nasal-spray flu vaccines do have live influenza viruses, the CDC says they are weakened and will not cause a person to get the flu.
One reason for this persistent myth is because the flu virus is constantly changing – which creates confusion and distrust of the vaccine – and some years the vaccine doesn’t cover the most prevalent, circulating strain of the virus – which is what happened last year.
“It may not sound like much if people expect the flu vaccine to rival vaccines for measles or polio, but a vaccine that is 40 percent effective has a 40 percent chance of completely preventing infection,” writes Emily Sohn of The Washington Post, citing Vanderbilt University infectious-disease specialist William Schaffner. His math adds up to “millions of people protected from a severe illness and hundreds of thousands kept out of hospitals,” Sohn notes.
In years when the vaccine is a good match for the dominant strains, people who get it are 40 to 60 percent less likely to get the flu, according to the CDC. And other studies show that vaccination can reduce the severity of the illness in people who get sick despite being vaccinated.
Is it better to get the flu than the flu vaccine? Again, the answer is no. Any flu infection comes with a risk of serious complications, hospitalization or death, even among otherwise healthy children and adults. Getting the flu is particularly dangerous among young children, older adults and people with chronic health conditions.
Do I need a flu vaccine every year? Yes, a flu vaccine is recommended each year for everyone six months and older. Not only do the strains change from year to year, but even if the same strains exist, a person’s immune protection from the vaccine diminishes over time.
So why do people feel bad after they get a flu vaccine? The CDC offers several explanations: They could be ill from other respiratory viruses, since the vaccine only protects against flu; they could have been exposed to the flu before they got their vaccine or during the two weeks it takes for the vaccine to kick in; they could have the flu, but from a different strain than the vaccine was designed to protect against; or they could actually have the flu, since the flu vaccine varies in how well it works and some people who get vaccinated may still get sick.
Should I get vaccinated twice for added immunity? No. Studies have not shown any benefit to this in adults during the same flu season, even among elderly persons with weakened immune systems. Except for some children, the CDC says only one dose is recommended each season.
When is it too late to get vaccinated? As long as the flu vaccine is circulating, you can and should get vaccinated. The season usually peaks between December and March most years, but can occur as late as May. And remember, it takes about two weeks after the vaccination for the recipient to develop immunity.
Is the “stomach flu” really the flu? No, people will say they have the “stomach flu” to describe illnesses with nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, which are rarely the main symptoms of the flu in adults, though they can be in children. The flu is a respiratory disease, not a stomach or intestinal disease.
If you’re looking for a place to get your flu shot, the CDC offers an interactive “flu vaccine finder” that allows you to type in your ZIP code to find nearby locations that offer flu shots. Local health departments also offer the vaccine.