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Monday, October 19, 2009

Does The Flu Shot Matter?

It's that time again where everyone says, "Go get the flu shot!" And every year, I dither and debate. Every year I dawdle. Frequently I miss out for lack of supply or early outages. Still, I don't usually get the flu. I seem to have some mutant immune system that keeps me more healthy than average, allowing me to dance with hundreds of strangers over four weekends in December and not get sick. The last time I got really really sick during Dickens was in 2000, and I blame that more on the airplanes I took to and fro from Dallas while working for EY during Dickens season than on Dickens. And even then, it wasn't the flu.

I'm not in a high-risk group for the flu, nor do I live with anyone in a high-risk group, so as flu vax supplies run low, I'm more than willing to step aside and let it go to those for whom it may really matter.

But then I read this article about the efficacy of the flu vaccine on mortality rates, and I just have... doubts. Does the flu vaccine really do much good? Are there other things our public health system should be ramping up to focus on, like say, a really serious campaign for all the other vaccines? You know, the ones that give us a lifetime of immunity to illnesses we could encounter at any time, rather than for a short four month flu season before becoming obsolete.

Now let me be abundantly clear here: I am pro-vaccination. Very very pro-vax. Give me my measles, mumps, rubella vax! Give me my tetanus shot! Give me a polio vaccine. Heck, I just wish they'd had the chicken pox vax and the HPV vax in time to help me. It's too late for me, but trust me, if I ever have a child, that child will be well and truly vaccinated for all the recommended vaccines. (And no, it will not cause autism. You have to be willfully ignorant to believe that.)

I just worry that there's little room left for middle ground here. If I skip the seasonal flu vaccine, am I lumped in with the crazy anti-vaxxers? I worry that this is yet another situation where only polar opinions are welcome. If you're not with us, you're against us. Why does it always seem to come down to two parties on either side of a giant canyon with slippery slopes separating each side?

I may go ahead and get the Swine Flu vax when it's available since that particular strain has seemed to have more staying power than its kin. But that doesn't keep me from my doubts. Nagging little questions. Wondering if we're worrying about the right things. Too many people are willing to drive everywhere because they're afraid of dying in a plane crash, though one look at the statistics will tell you how foolish that is. Are we inadvertently driving ourselves into a greater health risk?


  • I think flu vaccines are good extra protection for people in certain groups. Older people, people with some medical problems which would make getting the flu suck worse. They say that the flu vaccine is a moving target, so that's why it doesn't give full immunity and in some way gets a bad rap for that.

    By Blogger Chrisfs, at 11:47 PM  

  • See, but that's what this research is talking about. It may not even matter for the older folks. It may not reduce mortality at all. We may be chasing down the wrong path. I think it really warrants some additional study.

    By Blogger Ammy, at 10:05 AM  

  • Flu vaccines give the immune system a headstart on building antibodies. Dancers and teachers and other service people already are in contact situations where they might be getting bits of virus and developing antibodies along the way naturally. What I like about shots (as opposed to nasal spray vaccinations) is that the virus is dead. So the body has a chance to make antibodies without the risk of getting the flu. Building an arsenal catalog of virus villians. The next time a dancer who's wiped his nose on the back of his hand shares the live virus perhaps it will be a known villian.

    As far as anti-vaccination thing goes, herd immunity works well if the majority has been vaccinated. Since most people do not get flu vaccinations, there could be outbreaks of that particular flu. Since there will be some vaccinations that do not take, even some of the vaccinated could get ill.

    For myself, I still like to have the best defense. Even if the flu strains are different, maybe the villian virus will be close enough to one of the ones in my personal catalog that the antibodies will kill it.

    In game terms, it's kind of like finding something that's not gold, doesn't boost your powers in any big ways like flying or superkick, doesn't visibly extend your health or life, but there's no penalty for picking it up and adding it to your stash. Would you leave the goodie or take it?

    By Blogger Kim, at 10:32 AM  

  • [T]here's no penalty for picking it up and adding it to your stash.

    That's the catch: at least for swine flu, we do not yet know that to be true. As the Atlantic article states, the "safety of the swine flu vaccine remains to be seen".

    I haven't seen much difference between years when I did the flu shot and years when I did not. I suspect that good hygiene has more impact.

    By Blogger Michael, at 4:18 PM  

  • The Atlantic article can suck it.

    The CDC has been very clear that the "swine flu vaccine" is the same tried and tested flu vaccine they've been using for years - it simply has the H1N1 strain in it. They use the same vaccine with varying strains every year and the folks that worry about the safety of the annual flu vaccine are typically the same folks that worry about the safety of any vaccine.

    Ammy, you're going to be in close quarters for a couple of months touching the hands of strangers whose hygiene is unknown -- get the vaccine. It's safe. It's tested.

    The only question about the H1N1 vaccine at this point is the same with any other annual flu vaccine -- did they get the right strains to protect YOU?

    Keep some hand sanitizer handy too though and use it regularly. Wash your hands as often as you comfortably can. Avoid touching your face -- all of the usual things -- but getting the flu vaccine won't hurt you (except for the shot part, of course) and may be the boost you need to avoid a particularly virulent and unpleasant flu.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 11:18 AM  

  • The CDC has been very clear that the "swine flu vaccine" is the same tried and tested flu vaccine they've been using for years - it simply has the H1N1 strain in it.

    That is not literally true. They used the same process, but it is not the same vaccine.

    To quote the CDC (7 October): "there is a seasonal flu vaccine to protect against seasonal flu viruses and a 2009 H1N1 vaccine to protect against the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus. … The 2009 H1N1 vaccine will not protect against seasonal influenza viruses."

    The pandemic vaccine has not yet been fully tested. The CDC stated (14 October) that "we expect the 2009 H1N1 influenza vaccine to have a similar safety profile as seasonal flu vaccines".

    a particularly virulent and unpleasant flu

    Most flu symptoms are mild and last only a few days without treatment. On the other hand, if they are bad then you are in trouble (due apparently to an immune system mutation).

    Does this mean that you should not get a shot? No, but I wouldn't spend too much time worrying about it either. In any case you should not get it yet until vaccines have been given to those who are pregnant, care for infants, work in health care, are not between 25 and 65, or have a high risk of complications.

    In the US, the total number of people who have died of the 2009 H1N1 virus to date is within 20% of the number who die from the common flu every week.

    By Blogger Michael, at 4:40 PM  

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