The flu season is about to start, and with it the sometimes heated discussion about whether you should be getting your flu shot or not.
The scientific evidence surrounding vaccinations generally demonstrates that the benefits of preventing an illness or even death outweigh by far the rare adverse effects of immunization.
Yet I continue to meet people who claim that vaccines do not work, that they are dangerous or harmful, that it’s not natural, or that it is against their religious principles.
Then there are a number of people who are simply too scared to go and see the doctor or public health nurse to get their flu shot.
As with any intervention, something can go wrong, and that is also true for any immunization, including the influenza vaccine. The way of the world is that if one million people receive their annual flu shot and there is one person who happens to be allergic to the vaccine and has a serious adverse reaction, then that one case will make headlines and scare off a lot of other people and not a word is said about the 999,999 people who benefited.
As a result, it may take several years to regain public confidence in the vaccine.
Because of the effective vaccination programs many people forget that when we are born we have little or no immunity for diseases. It is only through exposure to disease-causing organisms that our immune systems will develop the protection.
Before the vaccines were developed, it was survival of the fittest. Child mortality from whooping cough, diphtheria, tetanus, smallpox, polio, measles was unacceptably high.
I am old enough to have witnessed the profound grief many families suffered when one or more children died from these diseases, simply because no effective vaccine was available, yet and doctors could do little to save the children once they got the disease.
Since most people now have their children immunized against these killer diseases – and there are 14 of them – we rarely experience the devastating effects of these aggressive bacteria and viruses any more.
Now that most of the serious early childhood diseases are no longer a big concern, the focus now is on preventing the annual premature death of approximately 4,000 older people in Canada during the winter months due to the flu.
There is still considerable controversy as to the total direct and indirect mortality imposed by influenza viruses. Some people blame the cold winter weather for the substantially higher mortality than during the summer months. Scientists have taken a hard look at this question and come to the conclusion that the cold weather by itself has very little influence on the increased number of deaths, since the same percentage also occurred in the warmer regions of North America during the flu season.
The long and short answer to the question if it is worth your while to receive your annual flu vaccine is that the benefits of making the trip to the clinic are substantial.
In healthy adults, vaccination was associated with fewer days of illness, fewer days of work lost, fewer doctors visits, and reduced use of prescription antibiotics and over-the-counter medicines. In people over 65 or younger people with chronic illnesses, the benefits are even clearer. These studies were done comparing people who received the vaccine and people who received a placebo.
There will be people who claim that they contracted the flu after the vaccination. They may be right that they got the flu, but it was not due to the vaccination. The vaccine contains only a killed virus that is incapable of multiplying itself like a live virus. It takes a week or longer for the vaccine to do its work and ready your immune system against the real virus. If you were in contact with someone who had the flu before you got your injection, the vaccine will not be able to protect you. Depending on the timing of your exposure, you may get a lighter case.
If you’re wondering, yes, I got my flu shot, and so should you, if you want to improve your chances of getting through the winter season in better health than those who did not avail themselves of this safe and effective remedy.
Dr. Marco Terwiel is a retired family physician who lives in Maple Ridge.