It’s October and that means, for me at least, it is time for a flu shot.
On the record, I don’t like getting flu shots, although the anticipation really is the worst part. The shot itself is over in moments. The paperwork takes longer than the physical needle stick.
However, the flu shot is better than being sick, homemade chicken noodle soup notwithstanding.
And this year, the shot may be more important than ever.
The 2017-18 flu season is on record as particularly long and virulent. According to the Association of Mature American Citizens and the Centers for Disease Control, the flu season lasted six months, from October 2017 to early spring. On Oct. 1, National Public Radio reported more than 80,000 people died from flu-related illnesses during the most recent flu season, “the highest death toll in more than 40 years,” according to NPR reporter Allison Aubrey.
Luther Rhodes, M.D., FACP, FIDSA, FSHEA, chief of infection control and hospital epidemiology at Lehigh Valley Health Network, cautioned other health issues likely contributed in many of those cases, complicating matters for patients whose health was compromised such as those with chronic heart disease, those undergoing cancer treatments including chemotherapy, on dialysis or living with other underlying chronic conditions. Other factors for flu may include obesity and gender, Rhodes said.
Flu deaths usually range from 16,000 to 64,000 annually, Rhodes said. As with weather, figures are calculated through modeling of past events.
A century ago, according to the CDC, a pandemic of influenza killed more than 50 million worldwide, 675,000 in the United States, the earliest outbreak documented, at a military base in Kansas in March 1918. In the ensuing crisis, factories and businesses closed due to illness among workers. And many medical personnel were called abroad for military efforts in World War I, requiring volunteers to step forward to care for the sick.
Particularly vulnerable populations at the time were children younger than 5 years old, people older than 65 and those 20 to 40 years old.
In 2018, the young and the senior populations remain at risk.
The CDC recommends everyone 6 months or older get a flu shot every year. There are rare exceptions.
Vaccines prompt the immune system to create antibodies to combat the flu. Side effects may include a fever for a small number of people who get a flu shot. A sore arm and a bit of swelling at the injection site will be the most noticeable effect for most recipients.
A variety of vaccines are available, including special high-dose vaccines formulated for those 65 and older, an egg-free version and a flu mist, a vaccine method returning to the flu battle arsenal after a two-year hiatus, according to Rhodes. The flu mists are especially effective in children. Rhodes recommends patients talk to their doctor about the best vaccine for them.
It is important to note, however, the vaccine is not a deflector shield. Those who get a flu shot may still get the flu; however, the illness likely will not be as severe. Plus, pneumonia can be a complication of flu. Older people are at higher risk for developing serious complications, such as hospitalizations, from contracting the flu, according to the AMAC.
Rhodes said flu shot vaccines are not perfect. Work on vaccines often begins in February and March annually, and there is a certain degree of guesswork involved as health researchers work to create a vaccine for a coming flu season. That is why it is important to get a flu vaccine every year.
A commitment on par with President John F. Kennedy’s initiative to put a man on the moon would be needed to create a universal flu vaccine to address all strains, in Rhodes’ opinion, although he is optimistic such a vaccine could be made.
Meanwhile, flu cases are starting to surface in the area, but it is not too late to get the shot. Outbreaks often spike in November, December and January.
Flu vaccines are available everywhere, it seems, from physicians’ offices to drugstores to grocery store pharmacies to big box retailers where incentives may include store gift cards. On Nov. 3 and 4, Lehigh Valley Health Network will again host free drive-thru flu shot clinics 9 a.m.-3 p.m. at Dorney Park and Coca-Cola Park, respectively. Drivers and passengers can receive the vaccine by sticking their arms out of their car windows, provided proper paperwork is completed and submitted.
On Oct. 3, I got a flu shot. In recent years as part of an effort to make the whole affair more tolerable, I get the shot on or around my brother’s birthday.
Happy birthday, brother dear. And thanks for the sore arm.
East Penn Press