Why do I get my flu shot? It’s probably not the answer you think. Two words: “herd immunity.” They are strange words, but let me explain.
In the past I have always considered myself to have a pretty tough immune system. I don’t smoke, I take good care of my health, I exercise and eat right, and heck, after nearly 30 years in the field of medicine, I figure I’ve been exposed to and developed immunity to just about every virus out there. Even if I did get sick, I could usually take a little ibuprofen, drink some hot tea, and get right back to work. I never got a flu shot because I just didn’t think I needed one. At least that was what I thought until I got the flu for the first time a little more than 10 years ago. I’ve never missed a flu shot since.
My kids were in kindergarten and second grade, and I was working in the emergency room and in a pediatric practice. Our family had a normal day, the kids hopped on the bus to school, and I was off to work as usual. Shortly after dinner that night, within a period of literally less than an hour, it felt as if I had been hit by a truck. What I can remember to this day is how impressively sudden this was.
I got the kids to bed and went to sleep, feeling feverish and aching all over with a terrible sore throat. I actually thought maybe I had come down with strep and decided to see a doctor the next morning if I didn’t feel better. The next morning I got the kids on the bus to school and crawled back on the couch, deciding I was just too sick to go anywhere.
That’s when the fever kicked in. Wow. It was impressive and frightening. The fever was 102 degrees and alternating with teeth chattering chills. I was hacking and coughing, sniffling and blowing my nose, miserable with a sore throat. Then the phone rang. The school was calling and both kids were in the nurse’s office with a fever.
I remember how hard it was to hold my head up because my neck and bones hurt so badly. It seemed as if the drive to the school took forever. Both kids had 103-degree fevers, a cough and runny noses. They looked so tiny and so frighteningly sick. They had been fine when I put them on the bus only a few hours before.
At the time, I was too sick to realize how bad our situation was. Looking back I know how lucky we were that all three of us fully recuperated. I also realized that not only had I somehow brought the flu home from work, but I had then infected and endangered both of my kids. My husband quarantined himself in his home office and didn’t come near us until we were no longer contagious. He didn’t get sick, the stinker.
So what does this have to do with the term “herd immunity?” When enough members of a group of animals are vaccinated against a disease, the entire group is more likely to escape infection because the spread of the contagious disease is contained, even if some could not get vaccinated. It’s sort of like the pay-it-forward concept. If I had only been vaccinated against the flu that year, I would not have gotten both my kids sick. If whoever gave me the flu that year had been vaccinated, then I would not have gotten sick and brought it home and so on. Also since the kids had been at school the morning they became ill, who knows how many teachers and other kids they may have infected. Then each child and teacher who got sick brought the flu home, possibly spreading it to their families and so on. All because I didn’t get my flu shot that year.
We were lucky, and we didn’t suffer any complications other than a miserable few days. Not everyone is so lucky. As we know from the news and from the federal Centers for Disease Control, the flu is dangerous for children. Each year, an average of 20,000 children under the age of 5 is hospitalized because of influenza complications. Some children will die from flu each year. Children younger than 6 months are at high risk of serious flu illness but are too young to be vaccinated, so people who care for them should be vaccinated (remember the herd immunity concept). Other groups at high risk of having serious flu-related complications include pregnant women, children younger than 5, but especially children younger than 2, people 50 and older, people of any age with certain chronic medical conditions and people who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
According to the CDC, despite the overwhelming logic for immunization against influenza, in America we have a terrible record. Last year, 66 percent of people 65 and older got flu shots; among those 50 to 64 years old, the rate was only 34 percent, and for those 18 to 49 it was 16.3 percent. Most appalling of all, only 34 percent of health-care workers got flu shots. The very people who are most at risk themselves and most likely to spread the virus to others are for the most part not getting their shots. This is just wrong.
Why aren’t people getting immunized? The reasons vary. Some see it as an inconvenience. Others are afraid of needles, and others don’t feel they have the time. The major reasons people don’t get immunized, however, stem from a set of widely held myths about the flu. Unless you are one of the rare people who is truly not able to receive the vaccine, there really is no excuse to avoid getting your flu shot.
• Vaccination is the best protection against contracting the flu. Only one shot is needed to produce immunity this year, and immunity develops in two weeks or less. Vaccination is currently in progress and will continue until spring. Peak flu activity in our area is predicted to be January, so there is still time! We are currently seeing and treating confirmed flu cases in Richmond Hill in several age groups. It’s not too late. Get vaccinated today.
• Most doctors’ offices, pharmacies and urgent care centers are giving flu shots in Richmond Hill and some are offering a discount. At an urgent care center, no appointment is ever needed. Walk in at your convenience.
• The flu shot does not cause the flu. It is an inactivated virus and typically causes only minor soreness in the area of the injection. Mild aches often are experienced with the first flu shot of a person’s life, but these are minor and go away quickly.
• You can and should get your flu shot even if you have underlying medical issues. Talk with your medical provider or go to www.flu.gov for more information.
Even if spending a week violently sick and bedridden doesn’t worry you, by immunizing yourself you will greatly decrease the chances you will spread the virus to some child or older person who might die from it. So no more excuses - do the right thing. End the flu with you.
Gaylor is a certified physician’s assistant with The Urgent Care Center of Richmond Hill.