By Mark A. Kelley, MD |1/15/18
Founder, HealthWeb Navigator
According to the Centers for Disease Control, we are in the midst of a significant flu season. Headlines tend to amplify danger, but when it comes to the flu, there is reason to worry. After all, the 2012-2013 flu season killed an estimated 56,000 Americans.
Influenza is highly contagious. Even those with mild symptoms can infect others in the first day of their illness. And once the flu virus is in the community, it can spread quickly.
There are two viruses that cause influenza: Type A and B. Type A changes its molecular appearance frequently. That means a strain that caused an epidemic one year may not be the next year’s culprit.
Sometimes a new flu strain emerges that is particularly aggressive and has a higher mortality rate. These frequent changes in the flu virus mean that humans cannot develop long-lasting immunity to its infection.
The solution is to provide a new vaccine each year that protects against the strains of virus that seem most likely to cause a new epidemic. But that prediction is imperfect. It takes six months to develop the vaccine, and in that time the targeted viruses may mutate. Some years, the vaccine hits the target and provides excellent protection. In other years—the aim is not as good.
For most healthy people, the flu is usually an inconvenient sickness from which they recover. But there are exceptions. Even healthy people can die from the flu.
Who’s At Risk and Why?
Children are particularly at risk, as are the elderly, pregnant women, and those with chronic illness. These groups account for most of the flu-related deaths every year.
So what makes the flu so deadly?
Research suggests that the flu virus can overwhelm those with weakened immune systems. Normally, our immune system fights off infection pretty well. But for children—whose immune systems aren’t fully developed—and adults over the age of 65, the immune system loses some of its effectiveness. Patients with chronic disease and pregnant women are especially susceptible to the additional stress.
These weaknesses allow the flu more time to invade the body before the immune system can stop it. The most common complication is pneumonia, which can lead to other infections elsewhere. These series of events can also lead to organ failure, long hospitalization, and even death.
Thankfully medical science is able to create the flu vaccine, reducing the flu-risk for millions of Americans.
Why You Should Get the Flu Vaccine
Here are some quick facts about this live-saving vaccine:
1. The flu shot reduces flu-related adult hospitalization by 57%, and as much as 70% in the elderly. For children, the flu vaccine reduces mortality by a whopping 65%.
2. Even if you get the flu, the vaccine will reduce the length of illness and reduce the risk of complications. And you will likely get back on your feet sooner.
3. The flu vaccine helps you protect others. If you are a healthy young or middle-aged adult, you will likely survive the flu—but you will also expose the rest of your family to the virus. Vulnerable family members are more likely to have complications from the flu, and have higher risks of hospitalization and even death. No one wants to expose loved ones to such danger.
The flu vaccine comes with little risk and protects all of us, particularly our children, the elderly, and those with health challenges. If you are healthy, the flu may not pose a great danger to you. But if you pass the virus on to someone who is vulnerable, it may threaten their life.
That alone is a good reason to get a flu shot every year.