The holidays are a time of gathering with loved ones to share meals, give gifts, and make lasting memories. But, if your family has not been vaccinated against the influenza virus, you may be spreading a lot more than holiday cheer.
Each year in our country, millions of people develop an infection with the influenza virus, hundreds of thousands are hospitalized consequently, and thousands die from flu-related complications. In fact, just over 100 children died last flu season as a result of influenza. It has long been hypothesized that cold and flu viruses circulate more during cold weather months because people tend to congregate indoors together. This is especially true during the holidays. The good news is that the annual flu vaccine can significantly reduce the risk of your family developing the flu or spreading it to others.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommend an annual flu vaccine for everyone 6 months and older. At particular risk for complications are people with asthma, diabetes, heart problems, or a weakened immune system. If someone if your family falls into one of these categories, providing protection is of utmost importance.
Many patients have questions surrounding the flu vaccine. I think a good understanding of how vaccines work, in general, will help people understand why they are critical to disease prevention. Prepare yourself for a brief science lesson.
When the body is exposed to an infection (usually a virus or bacteria), immune cells produce antibodies in response. Antibodies are protein molecules that help attack the infection. However, the process of producing antibodies can take days to weeks and in the meantime, the infectious organism can cause severe, and potentially fatal, illness. A vaccine exposes the body to a dead or weakened version of the virus or bacteria and causes the immune system to produce antibodies without causing illness. If the body later comes into contact with that particular infection, it will be equipped to fight it.
For the reasons detailed above, the immunization for the flu should ideally be administered by the end of October so there is time for the body to produce the proper antibodies prior to the peak of the season. This process usually takes two weeks. However, getting the vaccine at a later time can still be helpful and is recommended. It is imperative to note that vaccines cannot cause the disease that they are intended to prevent. The dead or weakened form of the vaccine is not capable of causing infection. In addition, no vaccine is perfect. It is still possible for an immunized person to acquire an infection. That being said, the infection is typically less severe in that scenario so the vaccine still provides some benefit.
The idea of herd immunity can help stop widespread outbreaks. This occurs when a significant enough portion of the population is immune that it provides protection to the unimmunized people in the population. Studies show that 80-95% of the group must be immunized for this to be effective. Since some people are not able to get the vaccine due to their age, allergy history, or other health conditions, those who are immunized are able to provide some protection to them. An example would be a family with a new infant who is too young to get the vaccine, but the other family members are immunized so the baby will hopefully stay healthy as well. Another example would be a student with asthma who is allergic to the flu vaccine, but his classmates and teachers are immunized so he does not contract the virus.
Some patients site never having a prior infection with the flu as a reason for not getting a flu vaccine. Respectfully, that argument is similar to saying that you don’t wear a seatbelt because you have never been in a car accident. The need for protection is not a result of a past problem, but rather the potential to experience that problem in the future. When counseling parents in my office, I tell them that their children are much more likely to come into contact with influenza than most other infections for which we recommend routine vaccines. That is not to say that we should not still utilize those vaccines, but that there should be less resistance to administration of the flu vaccine. This infection is potentially deadly; over 80% of the children who die from influenza are unimmunized.
As the song says, “Tis the season to be jolly”, not sick. This year, give your family the gift of health by getting them vaccinated against the flu.