Every year, right about now, the virtues of getting a flu shot are extolled in words-to-the-wise from physicians and every other kind of healthcare practitioner. And every year, right about now, I tune them right out, as if they’re meant for an entirely different species than myself. I am not the only one. But most flu shot dropouts have more logical reasons for their behavior than me, which basically is that I’m too busy. Some say they skip the shot because, after schlepping into their physician’s office for it one year, they got the flu anyway. So why would they bother getting it again? I have to admit, they have a point.
After researching for this story, however, I’ve concluded it’s time for us flu shot naysayers to rethink the matter. The flu, or influenza virus, actually is a global disease and, as such, deserves a modicum of respect. People die from it, 36,000 in America, on average, every winter. Some of them are children. Influenza is in fact a family of virus strains that constantly are morphing into new versions of themselves. The versions that get passed between coworkers in every office building in America between November and March are the ones that were in peak circulation the previous summer in Jakarta and Sydney and Santiago. What happens to the viruses over there, how much their genetic structure changes, directly affects how sick Americans will get that winter and how many will die from flu complications. Big genetic changes can set the stage for a flu pandemic. (Think winter 1918, when the flu pandemic killed between 20 and 40 million people.) It’s the web theory of winter wellness. We are all tiny shimmering threads in a great web of phlegm and achy chills.
Public health officials estimate that between 15 and 20 percent of the population will catch the flu every winter in America. Mostly it’s the elderly who die, but kids four and younger are almost as vulnerable. (Eighty-five children died from influenza nationwide last year; six were from California.) The rest of us just get really sick with a fever, aches, and chills that can last for weeks. According to the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, 205 people were hospitalized with the flu here last year, but that number probably is low since it represents only laboratory confirmed cases. Even so, Frank Alvarez, the county’s disease control and prevention expert, claims that last year’s flu season was just average. That’s not how my friends and family experienced it, however. More than half of my daughter’s fifth-grade class was out with the flu one particularly grievous week last February.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says more than 200 million Americans are eligible and should be vaccinated against flu. That’s most healthy adults who aren’t hermits or hibernators, because you never know who you’re going to bump into and infect.
Adults typically spread the flu for two days before they experience any symptoms; kids and teenagers spread it up to four days before they experience symptoms. That’s why, for the first time, the CDC is recommending kids between five and 18 get a flu shot; not only are they efficient little distributors of influenza viruses, but in them, the vaccine is 80 percent effective. It’s savvy strategy but highly unrealistic. Kids don’t like shots or doctors, and by the time flu season kicks in, they’ve already had their preschool year checkup. It will take parents literally dragging their children into the doctor’s office specifically for a shot, which, given the current preoccupation with the economy and kids’ harried after-school schedules, seems like a long-pardon the pun-shot.
It takes drug companies between six and nine months to manufacture the millions and millions of dosages of flu vaccine needed for Americans annually. That’s why there is a committee called the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) that meets every January to decide which influenza strains circulating the Southern Hemisphere are most likely to plague us the following winter. It’s part science, part guessing game. They have to pick three-two strains of the subtype A (which originate in the animal populations) and one strain of subtype B. Sometimes, between when VRBPAC makes its choices and the start of flu season, the chosen viruses have morphed. Last year, two of the three strains in the flu vaccine had morphed enough that the shot didn’t work very well. This year, according to CDC spokesperson Curtis Allen, it looks like the vaccine is right on target. Private companies are making 146 million dosages this year.
Santa Barbara County is hosting a number of free flu shot clinics for seniors. For information, visit sbcphd.org/advisory/flu/vaccineinfo.html. Sansum Clinic also is offering a series of low-cost flu shot clinics between now and December. Information can be found at sansumclinic.org if you type “flu shot” into the search engine. Big pharmacy chains like Longs Drugs hold clinics, too. At $30 a shot, it’s not a bad deal, and insurance cards are accepted. For people 49 and younger, the flu mist is not just available, but improved from last year. Studies have shown it’s even slightly more effective than the shot because it contains live attenuated (or weakened) virus. Side effects can include a runny or itchy nose.
Some of the flu vaccines do contain Thimerosal, the controversial organomercury preservative that activists have associated with autism. That association is unproven, but many parents still are convinced it causes harm. But not all vaccines have it. To find out which brands do and which don’t contain Thimerosal, visit cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/vaxsupply.htm. I, for one, am going to try the thoroughly Thimerosal-free FluMist. What do I have to lose but a little bit of time?
Where to get flu shots: