What you can learn from the flu epidemic: Get vaccinated earlier

What you can learn from the flu epidemic: Get vaccinated earlier

The following column was published on January 11, 2013 in CNN.

During the past few months, I have gently suggested to my patients that they receive the flu vaccine. Many said yes, but some declined.

Today, as I look up Google’s national flu trend map, I see nearly the entire country painted in an alarming red, signifying “intense” flu activity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 41 states are experiencing widespread flu outbreaks. There are 26 times more flu cases this year than last. And in Boston, near my primary care practice, a public health emergency was declared.

I shake my head when seeing these headlines, and I vow to be more persuasive when it comes to giving the flu vaccine. More patients need to be protected against influenza by getting flu shots earlier in the season.

Like many other clinics across the country, my office is flooded with patients suffering from coughs, runny noses, fevers and body aches, all potentially caused by the flu. Thankfully, the vast majority of adults survive. But others fare less successfully: the young, the elderly, and those with chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes or cancer.

Severe flu complications, like pneumonia, can hospitalize these patients, or worse, be fatal. Consider the young. According to William Rodriguez, a pediatrician at the Food and Drug Administration, between 43 and 153 children have died in the past 10 flu seasons combined. Already, 18 children have died this season.

One reason why the flu outbreak is so prevalent this year is that the predominant strain, H3N2, hasn’t been this widely circulated since 2002-03 and is associated with a more severe illness.

But another reason is the relatively low percentage of patients who received a flu shot. This year’s vaccine is well matched to the circulating viruses and, while not perfect, provides good protection. Flu shots are about 60% effective. But more than half of Americans skip the vaccine. Only 46% received one last year. This year’s numbers are about the same.

The reason many cite, “I got the flu from the flu shot!” isn’t valid. There are no live viruses in the vaccine. If someone got sick after the shot, it’s because of a coincidental illness caused by the scores of other non-influenza viruses that can cause similar upper respiratory symptoms.

Others say, “I’ve never had the shot before, and I’ve been fine.” In some, the flu can be debilitating, leaving patients bedridden for days. In others, it can simply be a runny nose or a minor cough. But it’s still the flu and can be spread to more vulnerable patients, with disastrous consequences for them.

According to Frank Esper, a viral respiratory disease expert at UH Case Medical Center in Ohio, “Every time you vaccinate yourself, you’re not just protecting yourself, but you’re protecting everyone you know, including individuals who are young or pregnant.”

It’s still not too late for a flu shot. Go get one if you haven’t already. Although its protective action won’t take effect for about two weeks, the flu season hasn’t peaked.

I realize I have to do a better job to dispel these myths in the exam room and convince more of my patients to receive a flu shot. But patients can also help. Read the headlines and learn from the current flu crisis. Then be proactive and get a vaccine earlier in future flu seasons.

What you can learn from the flu epidemic: Get vaccinated earlierKevin Pho is co-author of Establishing, Managing, and Protecting Your Online Reputation: A Social Media Guide for Physicians and Medical Practices. He is founder and editor of KevinMD.com, also on FacebookTwitterGoogle+, and LinkedIn.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=881580563 Kristy Sokoloski

    Speaking from the patient side of things my thought was that I would rather have the flu than have the shot. The reason is not because I want to get sick or enjoy the thought of doing so, it’s because I was afraid of how I would react to the shot itself due to medical concerns. Back in Oct when I saw my doctor for something else and he very strongly recommended that I get a flu shot. I did just that. Thankfully I didn’t react the way I thought I would.

    I saw the headlines about the State of Emergency in Boston as well as the number of deaths so far. It was then that I fully understood why my doctor would not let this go, and that he was trying to protect me as well as his other patients. Thank you for sharing this, and I hope that others will follow through on getting their flu shot before it’s too late.

  • Miranda Fielding

    Thanks for putting this out there Kevin. My own father nearly died of pneumonia two weeks ago, a secondary infection after a viral URI–unclear whether it was influenza because he was out of the country when he got sick. When I asked him (a retired physician, of course!) if he had had the flu shot, he admitted that he had not!

  • Justsayno!

    Last fall, the Cochrane group released two new scientific reviews on flu vaccines. Their review of all trials comparing vaccinated versus unvaccinated adults found that, at best, vaccines might be effective against only influenza A and B.

    This represents only about 10 percent of all circulating viruses. Under ideal conditions, where the vaccine completely matches the circulating viral configuration, 33 healthy adults need to be vaccinated to avoid one set of influenza symptoms.

    In average conditions (partially matching vaccine) 100 people need to be vaccinated to avoid one set of influenza symptoms.

    They also found that vaccine use did not affect the number of people hospitalized or working days lost, but did cause one case of Guillian-Barré syndrome (a major neurological condition leading to paralysis) for every one million vaccinations. So please, carefully weigh the risks versus benefits before you opt for vaccination.

    I work in a hospital and a lot of the sheep that took the flu vaccine ended up getting the flu. Although, the experts say that this is not possible, it is happening.

    Pharmaceutical companies have proven that they cannot be trusted and are some of the most unethical companies in America. There research studies are skewed and often not truthful. Bad results are not reported.

    Doctors make a profit from giving flu shots and are quick to endorse them even though they have been proven to be rather ineffective.

  • drjoekosterich

    Sounds good. Small problem There is no evidence that a routine flu shot affects hospitalization complications or even the likelihood of getting the flu (or flu-like illnesses). And that is from the Cochrane Collaboration not the anti-vax brigade.