Flu season started early in St. Louis this year. By the end of October, several cases of influenza had been reported. Concerned public health officials advised everyone older than 6 months to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Yet there are plenty of people who reject the flu vaccine.
“The flu vaccine is the best way to protect yourself from getting the flu,” says Dr. Tim Pratt, chief medical officer at SSM St. Clare Health Center and a primary-care physician. “There are very few contraindications for individuals not to get the flu shot. Currently, the pneumonia vaccine also is recommended for the 50 and older population.”
Seasonal flu vaccines protect against the three influenza viruses that research indicates will be most common during the upcoming season, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although the process of predicting flu strains is not foolproof, the vaccine usually provides a good measure of protection.
“Flu seasons are unpredictable in a number of ways. Although epidemics of flu happen every year, the timing, severity and length of the epidemic depends on many factors, including what influenza viruses are spreading, whether they match the viruses in the vaccine, and how many people get the vaccine,” says Linda Maly, manager of infection prevention at St. Luke’s Hospital.
People who are allergic to eggs should opt for the nasal spray form of the flu vaccine, which is safe for healthy, non-pregnant people from 2 to 49 years old, rather than the injected vaccine, which may contain very small amounts of egg protein.
Aside from this small group of egg-allergic people, the flu vaccine is considered very safe for almost everyone. One concern cited by some individuals involves potential exposure to thimerosal, a preservative used in many types of vaccines. “Thimerosal is a mercury-based preservative that has been used for decades in the United States in multi-dose vials of some vaccines to prevent the growth of germs, bacteria and fungi that can contaminate them,” Maly explains. “There is a large body of scientific evidence on the safety of thimerosal. Numerous studies have found no association between thimerosal exposure and autism.”
Another common anti-vaccine argument is that the flu vaccine may actually cause a case of influenza. Again, experts dismiss this concern. The worst potential side effects are minor, Maly says. They include soreness, redness or swelling at the injection site, low-grade fever, or aches. “The viruses in the injectable influenza vaccine are inactivated (not live) so they do not cause influenza,” she emphasizes. “The Live Attenuated Influenza Vaccine (LAIV) is made from weakened viruses and does not cause influenza. It may cause some mild illness, runny nose, headache, sore throat or cough.”
In fact, some people who claim to come down with flu after being vaccinated may have instead suffered from a ‘flu-like illness.’ “In the winter, we do see many cases of flu-like illness, which are due to different viruses,” Pratt says. “These are not protected by the flu vaccine. Usually these illnesses are of a milder nature than the true influenza infection.” He also notes that it takes about two weeks after vaccination for full immunity to occur. Sometimes, flu is contracted during this period of time.
With a low risk profile and the benefit of protecting yourself and your loved ones, consider getting your flu shot and enjoy a healthy holiday season.