THE FLU VACCINE
As a primary health care nurse I have given more flu vaccines than I can count. Winter is a very busy time for general practice, partly because of the demand for the flu shot. Even in February when summer is still well and truly in swing people start calling the practice and asking at every visit if we have the vaccine yet. Personally, I celebrate this enthusiasm. The flu vaccine is a safe, simple and affordable way to reduce rates of influenza and protect our society each flu season. Anybody who knows me is aware that I think vaccines are pretty much the greatest medical invention in history.
Of course, like most of the great things in life, the flu shot is polarising. I have come to learn that pretty much everybody has an opinion on the vaccine, both positive and negative. It’s time for everybody to learn some core facts and bust some myths about the flu shot.
What is the flu vaccine?
The flu vaccine is an immunisation that protects against certain strains of the virus Influenza, commonly known as the ‘flu.’ The flu is a serious respiratory illness that can be fatal in severe cases and/or certain populations, like the elderly. The flu is NOT the common cold, which is most often caused by Rhinovirus, so the flu shot will not protect you against getting a cold.
Unlike other vaccines the flu vaccine changes every year. There are several strains of the virus Influenza, so the vaccine regularly updates to ensure that each year the most common strains are being covered. Occasionally there are also two versions of the vaccine, for instance in 2016 there was a trivalent vaccine (contained protection against three strains) and a tetravalent vaccine (contained protection against four strains). To find out what you’re getting each year you can check out your government’s immunisation website or look to the pharmaceutical company that manufactured the vaccine.
Is the vaccine safe?
All vaccines are safe. They have side-effects, most of which are mild and localised to the injection site, but they are all safe. There are conspiracy theories that vaccines cause autism, or are linked to mental health issues in children, but these claims are false and have no scientific support. To learn more about vaccines, check out my other article on getting a vaccine check as an adult here. So just like all other vaccines, the flu vaccine is very safe.
The other common myth around the flu vaccine is that it can give you the flu. THIS IS A MYTH! There are some side effects, the most common is localised pain, swelling and/or redness at the injection site. This is temporary and can be easily managed with an ice pack or some paracetemol (if not contraindicated for you). Another common side effect is that the flu vaccine can give you flu-like symptoms, such as a low-grade fever or muscles aches, but not the actual flu. This is a simple immune response. The flu vaccine contains an inactivated, or dead, version of the virus. This mean it is impossible to get any of the strains of flu in that vaccine directly from the vaccine.
I got the flu vaccine and still got sick!
When people get any kind of respiratory infection after getting the flu shot they tend to write-off the vaccine. There are actually a lot of reasons why you can get sick after getting the vaccine that are unrelated to receiving the immunisation. The most likely explanation is that you have another virus, such as the common cold, and you don’t actually have the flu. You might have been exposed to influenza before the vaccine or during the incubation period just after getting the vaccine (it can take up to one month after getting the shot to be completely protected), or maybe you were exposed to a strain of the flu that wasn’t featured in this year’s vaccine. That’s another reason to get the flu vaccine regularly; more broad protection in the long run. But once again, the vaccine DID NOT GIVE YOU THE FLU!
Who should get the vaccine?
According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, everyone should get the annual flu shot (unless contraindicated for a specific individual). Vaccines work best the more people are vaccinated. By cause and effect the more people that are immunised the fewer people getting sick and therefore able to infect others. This is known as ‘herd immunity.’ If only a few people are vaccinated you can’t achieve any kind of significant community protection. Furthermore if we achieve herd immunity we are protecting those vulnerable populations who can’t be immunised, for example people who are immune-compromised.
In NSW some people are eligible for a free flu vaccine because they are at higher risk of serious complications from Influenza. These groups include anybody over 65, pregnant women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 6 months to 5 years and/or 15 years and over, and finally anyone with a chronic illness that puts them at risk from Influenza, such as asthma, COPD, diabetes, HIV, etc. If you fall into this category or are unsure if you do, talk to your doctor about the flu shot. Some work places will provide the vaccine for free to employees as it protects their staff but even if you have to pay for the vaccine it is normally capped at around $20-30.
The flu vaccine is about protecting ourselves, but also our vulnerable populations who a flu could be fatal for. Chat to your doctor about the flu vaccine and do it early before winter hits! For more information check out the resources below or head to Hot on Health’s social media to get in touch.
This flu season, remember, "There is no healthcare without self-care."
References/ Suggested Reading:
AGDOH 2015, ‘The Australian Immunisation Handbook (10th Edition)’, Australian Government Department of Health, viewed 10 June: 2016: http://www.immunise.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/Content/7B28E87511E08905CA257D4D001DB1F8/$File/Aus-Imm-Handbook.pdf
AGDOH 2013, ‘Myths and Realities: Responding to arguments against vaccination’, Australian Government Department of Health, viewed 10 June 2016: http://www.immunise.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/Content/13ACB374291E3532CA257D4D0081E4AA/$File/full-publication-myths-and-realities-5th-ed-2013.pdf
NSW Health 2017, 'Seasonal Influenza Vaccination 2017', NSW Health, viewed 01 March 2017: http://www.health.nsw.gov.au/immunisation/Pages/seasonal_flu_vaccination.aspx
NCIRS 2016, 'Fact Sheet: Influenza', National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, viewed April 2016: http://www.ncirs.edu.au/assets/provider_resources/fact-sheets/influenza-fact-sheet.pdf
CDC 2013, 'Flu Vaccine: Facts and Myths', Centre for Disease Control Prevention, viewed March 2017: https://jeffreysterlingmd.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/flu-vaccine-facts-myths.png
CDC 2017, 'Key Facts About Seasonal Flu Vaccine', Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, viewed 01 March 2017: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/keyfacts.htm