Health Care

Should I get a flu shot or will it make me sick or give me Alzheimer’s?

A sign advertising flu shots is displayed at a Walgreens phramacy on Jan. 22, 2018, in San Francisco, California. A strong strain of H3N2 influenza has claimed the lives of 74 Californians under the age of 65 since the flu season began in October of last year. People are being encouraged to get flu shots even though the vaccine has been only partially effective in combating the influenza.
A sign advertising flu shots is displayed at a Walgreens phramacy on Jan. 22, 2018, in San Francisco, California. A strong strain of H3N2 influenza has claimed the lives of 74 Californians under the age of 65 since the flu season began in October of last year. People are being encouraged to get flu shots even though the vaccine has been only partially effective in combating the influenza. Getty Images

One of the biggest debates raging on social media these days — maybe even dwarfing commentary on President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address — is whether to get a flu shot.

The squabbling has been fueled by unscrupulous or obscure websites that make outlandish, undocumented claims that the flu shot was unsafe because it has killed a “CDC doctor’s” patients.

Snopes recently debunked that one. “Flu shots may not be as effective as hoped this year, but they’re still not making things worse,” said Snopes, a fact-checking website, citing the actual Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This much we know: This year’s flu season is now more intense than any since the 2009 swine flu pandemic and is getting worse, federal health officials said earlier this month, The New York Times reported. Across the country, 37 children have died from the flu as of Jan. 20, according to the CDC’s weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report. The death of West Palm Beach seventh-grader Dylan Winnik, 12, on Jan. 23 will be included in the center’s next report. Preliminary tests show that Dylan, who did not get a flu shot this season, died of Influenza B after suffering symptoms for only two days.

Dylan winnik
Dylan Winnik, 12, was a seventh grade student in West Palm Beach who died of complications from Influenza B on Jan. 23, 2018. GoFundMe Miami Herald File

The Gulf Coast Schools district in Florida’s Panhandle closed for scrubbing last week when 20 percent of the student population was out sick from the flu and teachers, substitute teachers and bus drivers were calling in sick.

But the debate rages on. Here’s one of the more civil discussions from a recent Facebook news feed:

“There is always some idiot on FB who touts some shady website talking about the dangers of flu shots. Those people are harmful to your health and they are no friend of mine. I don't like deliberate ignorance, it bothers me. I make everyone in my family get the flu shot every year. Now, my family may have their issues but getting the flu isn't one of them,” posted veteran Los Angeles music publicist Elaine Shock.

“I have a very strong immune system and for now I prefer to let it work unassisted as much as possible,” responded one of her Facebook friends.

Here’s what you need to know:

▪ Can you get the flu from the flu shot?

No. A common misconception is that the flu shot can cause the flu, but that’s not true — you cannot get the flu from a flu shot, the CDC says. According to the agency, flu shots are made in two ways: either with flu vaccine viruses that have been ‘inactivated’ so they are not infectious, or with no flu vaccine viruses at all, which is the case for recombinant influenza vaccine.

▪ The flu shot is only 10 percent effective this year, so what’s the point?

That’s not entirely true. In Australia, lab tests have been discouraging, showing that the shot is only about 10 percent effective against the stubborn H3N2 virus — which began circulating 50 years ago as the “Hong Kong Flu” in 1968. But in the United States, the CDC says it is 34 percent effective. No one is entirely clear why there is such a discrepancy in the numbers. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek protection.

And H3N2 isn’t the only form of flu. Flu vaccination can reduce the risk of flu illness by between 40 percent and 60 percent among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine, according to the CDC. In general, current flu vaccines tend to work better against Influenza B and Influenza A (H1N1) viruses and offer lower protection against Influenza A (H3N2) viruses.

Seattle shot
Don’t be a baby. A flu shot doesn’t hurt that bad and it won’t give you the flu. But it might prevent or lessen the severity of one. This Jan. 11, 2018, file photo shows Ana Martinez, a medical assistant at the Sea Mar Community Health Center, giving a patient a flu shot in Seattle. Ted S. Warren AP

▪ I don’t need a flu shot. I got one last year.

Good for you. You were wise last year. Now do it again. The strains included in each year’s flu vaccine change from one year to the next, based on the World Health Organization’s twice-yearly educated guesses on which strains are most likely to circulate.

▪ Will the flu shot make me sick?

Maybe. While it won’t give you the flu you might feel some soreness, redness, or swelling at the point of injection. You might also get a low-grade fever and feel some aches. But the symptoms are short-lived. Some people shouldn’t get a flu shot. Children younger than 6 months are too young. People with severe, life-threatening allergies to flu vaccine or any ingredient in the vaccine — which might include eggs, gelatin or antibiotics — should not get the shot.

If you are allergic to eggs, or have ever had Guillain-Barré Syndrome (a severe paralyzing illness) or already aren’t feeling well, you should talk to your doctor first before getting the shot.

▪ I’m pregnant so I can’t get a flu shot — and I don’t want it to increase the risk of a miscarriage.

Wrong on both counts. The CDC says pregnant women should get a flu shot and it may even reduce your risk of miscarriage, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

▪ The flu shot increases my risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Nope. Wrong again. The Alzheimer’s Association says there is no link between the flu vaccine and getting the disease. The flu shot also won’t increase your risk of heart attack and stroke, either.

patient in hospital
This January 2018 photo provided by Jennifer Burrough shows Shawn Burrough in the hospital in San Diego. Jennifer Burrough and her family didn’t get flu shots this year after hearing reports that suggested it might not work very well this season. But her 48-year-old Navy veteran husband, Shawn, landed in the hospital and he had trouble breathing and his kidneys started shutting down. He was medically sedated and put on a breathing machine. Jennifer Burrough AP

▪ I made it this far into flu season, do I still need a shot?

Yes.

▪ I never get sick, or get the flu, so why do I need to get a shot now?

Can you predict the winning lottery numbers, too? Point is, you can’t really predict whether you’ll get the flu. So why not err on the side of caution? You wear a seat belt to reduce the risk of injury in a car accident, right?

As for catching a cold or the flu when going to the doctor’s office or urgent care center, well, maybe that’s possible but you can’t live your life in isolation or a Hazmat suit.

Wash your hands. And, if in doubt, give your doctor a call.

What actions—apart from getting vaccinated and taking medicine—can you take to help slow the spread of illnesses like the flu?

Follow @HowardCohen

Related stories from Miami Herald

  Comments