By Dr. Chris Tonozzi, MD, Director of Data Quality
The season for flu vaccination is upon us. As medical providers, we have lots of discussions with families about influenza “flu” vaccine. Each year the strength of protection for the flu vaccine varies, and families want to be sure they are not giving their children unnecessary vaccines. Let’s look at some of the data as it relates to common questions and comments we hear from families.
What determines how well the flu vaccine will work?
Flu vaccine effectiveness is determined by characteristics of the person being vaccinated (their age and health) as well as the “match” between the variety of flu viruses in any given year, and the formulation of the vaccine that is produced by the manufacturers. Many months before the vaccine is released to us, scientists must make a prediction about what strains of flu vaccine will be circulating in the upcoming season. This information then goes to the manufacturers, and the vaccine is released by late summer. Here is the effectiveness of flu vaccine over the last several years (from CDC).
The problem is, we can’t predict that effectiveness, and if you wait to see how effective the flu vaccine is for that year, it’s likely too late; you’ve already run substantial risk of getting flu.
I feel bad poking my tiny infant. Is flu vaccine necessary for babies? A recent study in the journal Pediatrics, found that “influenza vaccination has been estimated to reduce the risk of pediatric deaths by half among children with preexisting medical conditions and by nearly two-thirds among children without preexisting medical conditions . . .” The same study in the journal, Pediatrics, also showed that the vaccine reduced the risk of dying from influenza by half in children. In 2016, there were 5, 251 deaths from influenza in the United States. There have been years in which millions of people died world-wide from influenza. We can’t predict when another “flu pandemic” like this will hit.
Is it true that I can get influenza from receiving the vaccine? No, the vaccine is made from flu virus that has been “inactivated.” It is not infectious. It is common to have soreness at the injection site, redness and possibly swelling. You may have low grade fever, headache and muscle aches the next day, but this is not influenza, it is your body building up immunity.
What about people who get the vaccine and still get sick with flu? There are a few explanations for this.
- As we see from the statistics above, there are strains of the virus that are not in the vaccine. These vary by year, but in general, we know that the risk of getting influenza is much lower if you get the vaccine.
- There are many cold viruses that give symptoms like flu. The flu vaccine doesn’t protect you against those.
- A person may be exposed to influenza virus around the time of receiving the vaccine. It takes two weeks before the vaccine reaches its full effectiveness. So, it’s important to plan ahead.
The balance of the data suggests that receiving the flu vaccine will keep you or your kids significantly healthier. It’s available now in many pharmacies and we expect to start giving it at Mountain Family in October. Remember, it’s now recommended for everybody over the age of 6 months. It’s especially important for the very young, the very old, and those with chronic diseases.
Editor’s Note: In August we shared CDC recommendations for ways make vaccinations less stressful. You can read that column here.