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Flu Vaccine 101: The Myths and the Truth

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This Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has declared this week (1st – 7th December) as the National Influenza Vaccination Week to emphasize the importance of getting the flu vaccine.

There are many misconceptions about the flu itself and the flu vaccine. Although the CDC and other medical associations recommend that most people aged 6 months and older get vaccinated against the flu, uptake of the vaccination appears to be inadequate by both healthcare professionals and the general population.

Figures from the HSE in Ireland alone show that uptake rates for the vaccine amongst healthcare workers in the acute hospital sector were 44.9% in 2018, and 34% in 20171. Many have suggested that the low uptake rates amongst the population and healthcare professionals may be due to the myths surrounding the vaccine.

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In this blog post, we will explore some of the myths surrounding the influenza vaccine and the flu.

Myth 1: “I’m hardly likely to get the flu. I’m just not susceptible to it.”

Truth: The truth is the influenza virus is quite contagious and can be spread via droplets in the air or on a contaminated surface. You are exposed to the flu when you breathe in the droplets, or these droplets land in your eyes, nose or mouth. When a person sneezes, droplets can travel up to 6 feet.

It’s as simple as touching a contaminated surface like your desk at work, a doorknob or the railing in the bus, and then touching your face to catch the flu.

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Myth 2: “Getting the flu isn’t a big deal.”

Truth: The flu is quite contagious, and it can actually be a big deal, particularly for children, the elderly, and those with other comorbidities such as diabetes, COPD and those that are immunocompromised2,3. Systematic reviews have been conducted and have found that the influenza vaccine may help reduce exacerbations and prevent mortality in patients with comorbidities.

However, healthy patients may also reap the benefits of receiving the flu vaccine. An analysis published by the University of Minnesota by the Centre for Infectious Disease Research and Policy concluded that the influenza vaccine provides protection against virology confirmed influenza4. Although the need for more superior preventative measures is recognized, considering the ongoing health burden of influenza and the potential effect of a global pandemic, the current vaccines are the best intervention for seasonal influenza.

Myth 3: “I don’t need the flu shot every year”

Truth: The strains of the influenza virus mutate every year, so yearly vaccination against the virus is imperative to get immunity from the strains most likely to cause an outbreak. The yearly vaccines are carefully devised by more than 10 national influenza centers in over 100 countries, which then send representative viruses to five World Health Organisation (WHO) Collaborating Centres for Reference and Research on Influenza. A consultation with the Directors of these centers then decide on the strains the vaccine should cover.

Myth 4: “I can take some antibiotics, and I should be fine.”

Truth: Antibiotics are effective against bacterial infections, but have no efficacy on viral infections like influenza. It is possible, however, to develop a bacterial infection as a complication from the flu, so it’s a good idea to get checked by your primary care physician if your symptoms worsen over time.

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Myth 5: “The flu vaccine will give me the flu”

Truth: The flu vaccine is made from inactivated viruses that are incapable of causing the flu. There are also vaccines that contain the live virus but have been attenuated. These tend to be given via a nasal spray, and are also not able to cause the flu.

Some patients may experience transient adverse effects after a vaccine such as soreness at the site of injection, redness, tenderness or even a low-grade fever. However, according to the CDC, these symptoms tend to be short-lived, low grade in nature, and are less severe than catching the flu itself.

Myth 6: “I got the flu vaccine before, but I still ended up getting the flu, so there’s no need to get vaccinated.”

Tropical Medicine Bureau

Truth: Yes, it is still possible to get the flu after getting vaccinated. There are a number of reasons this may happen.

  • Some people may have become exposed to other respiratory viruses, and not the flu
  • It is possible that you may have been exposed just prior to getting vaccinated, or within two weeks of getting vaccinated.
  • It is also possible to have been exposed to a virus strain that is not included in the vaccine for that year
  • People also have varying responses to the vaccine, depending on their age and health

Nevertheless, the Directors of the WHO Collaborating Centres ensure that the most likely strains of influenza for that year are included in the vaccine. In addition, studies have shown that those who get vaccinated but unfortunately end up contracting the flu were less likely to get severe symptoms in comparison to their counterparts that weren’t vaccinated.

Myth 7: “It’s December, so it’s too late to get the vaccine”

Truth: Although it is recommended to get the vaccine near the start of the flu season, around October, you are still better off getting vaccinated while the viruses are active. This is because the flu season can last as late as March/ April.

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In summary

In summary, medical myths surrounding the vaccine can be detrimental to one’s wellbeing. It’s best to keep yourself protected than face the risk of becoming ill during the holidays, fear of being absent from work or college, or simply living your life to the fullest.

Featured image: WRAL

References

  1. HSE (2018). Uptake of the Seasonal Influenza Vaccine in Acute Hospitals and Long Term Care Facilities in Ireland in 2017-2018. [online] Dublin, Ireland: Health Protection Surveillance Centre. Available at: https://www.hpsc.ie/a-z/respiratory/influenza/seasonalinfluenza/influenzaandresidentsoflongtermcarefacilities/Summary%20Findings-Seasonal%20Influenza%20Vaccine%20Uptake-2017-2018-v1.3.pdf [Accessed 5 Dec. 2019].
  2. Levi-Vinograd, I., Zalmanovici Trestioreanu, A., Leibovici, L. and Paul, M. (2011). Influenza vaccines for prevention of influenza-like illness and influenza in immunosuppressed cancer patients. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.
  3. Poole, P., Chacko, E., Wood-Baker, R. and Cates, C. (2000). Influenza vaccine for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.
  4. Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy (2012). The Compelling Need for Game-Changing Influenza Vaccines, An Analysis of the Influenza Vaccine Enterprise and Recommendations for the Future. Minnesota: CIDRAP, pp.20-27.
Ola Falade

The author Ola Falade

Ola is a medical student at The Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (RCSI).

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