This story was produced in partnership with Kaiser Permanente.
This past winter and spring, some 900,000 Americans landed in the hospital due to influenza and 80,000 died from flu-related complications, making 2017–2018 the deadliest flu season in 42 years. Of those who lost their lives, 172 were children, 80 percent of whom had not been given a flu vaccine — the most and safe effective protection we have against this highly contagious, potentially fatal virus.
Sadly, despite the vaccination’s proven benefits, low cost, and widespread availability — and despite the fact that about 50 million Americans get hit with the flu each year — only about half of the population opts for the flu shot.
“As a practicing physician, I am amazed that I often have to beg patients to get a vaccine that can potentially save their and others’ lives,” says Eduardo Lopez, M.D., head of the nephrology department at Kaiser Permanente’s Panorama City Medical Center in California. “Research shows that vaccination reduces not only the risk of flu illness but also the risk of severe complications and hospitalization. We have enough evidence that we can confidently recommend that everybody over 6 months old get the flu shot. It is our best defense against this very serious illness.”
What Is Influenza?
A respiratory virus affecting the nose, throat, lungs, and potentially other organs, influenza has been circulating the globe for centuries. Its many strains originate in birds, pigs, and other animals; then they mutate and eventually infect humans, who pass it to one another. Although the virus is present year-round, Lopez says it goes into a dormant phase for much of the year. Then, usually beginning in late October and running as late as May, influenza runs rampant, sickening millions of Americans in its wake.
Most people start showing signs of the flu about 24 hours after the contracting the virus. While influenza affects everyone differently, symptoms may include a sore throat, cough, stuffy or runny nose, headache, body aches, chills, fever, fatigue, and even diarrhea or vomiting. These symptoms can range from mild, in which case they might be mistaken for the common cold, to severe, knocking you out of commission and possibly requiring hospitalization.
According to Lopez, experts don’t know why some people get sicker from the flu than others. But it’s clear that kids under age 5, adults age 65 and up, and people with chronic conditions such as asthma, heart disease, or diabetes are at greater risk of serious complications. “Influenza is very virulent because, unlike the common cold, it is not just limited to the upper respiratory tract,” Lopez says. “The virus can go into the bloodstream, spread into several organs, and cause multi-organ failure.”
How the Flu Spreads
Influenza is most commonly transferred via the tiny droplets that hang in the air after an infected person sneezes, coughs, or even just talks. If you’re within six feet of this person, chances are you’ll breathe in the virus-carrying droplets. And as Lopez points out, we often sit and stand much closer than six feet from others at home, at work, on the train, and at social functions. Although it’s also possible to contract the flu by touching a cellphone, doorknob, or other contaminated surface and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes, this mode of transmission is less likely.
But what’s especially scary about the flu — and why it spreads so rapidly — is you can pass it to another person before you have any clue you have the virus. “You can start spreading influenza one to two days before you have symptoms,” Lopez says. “Or, you might be infected and never have significant symptoms. That is another reason why the flu is so much worse than a normal cold — you can unknowingly risk the lives of your loved ones, especially those who are at high risk of complications.”
Think about your toddler son, your elderly neighbor, or your 72-year-old mom who’s visiting for the week. You could infect each of them even if you feel totally fine. “Getting a vaccine every year to prevent infection is the best way to protect yourself and others from the flu,” Lopez says.
The Truth About Flu Shots
The flu vaccine contains tiny amounts of multiple strains of the inactivated (read: dead) influenza virus cultivated in a lab. When injected into your body, the presence of these strains, while they cannot make you sick, will prompt your innate defense mechanism to produce antibodies to battle against them. Then, if you are exposed to the real live virus, your body will recognize it and fight it off naturally.
The challenge in creating the vaccine for each flu season, and why the vaccine proves more effective some years than others, is the virus is constantly mutating and different strains emerge as the biggest threats. So, every February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention convenes a panel of experts who examine data from the previous flu season in the U.S. and the current flu season in the Southern Hemisphere (which runs from April to September). They use this research to make an educated guess as to which four strains are most likely to circulate during the upcoming flu season and then instruct flu shot manufacturers to include those strains in the vaccine.
Some years, the vaccine ends up being a close match to the strains that become most virulent, and for those flu seasons, immunization proves very effective. But other years, because this virus is ever-changing and never 100 percent predictable, the flu shot is less effective. For example, the swine flu, strain H1N1, caught experts off-guard in 2009 and hit the U.S. particularly hard. After that severe flu season, they included H1N1 in the following year’s vaccine.
No matter the particulars of the yearly strain, getting the flu shot is always worth it. This is especially true for anyone who lives near and dear to a vulnerable population — the elderly, kids, and, yes, pregnant women. Babies under 6 months don’t receive the flu shot, making it all the more important for pregnant or new moms to get their shots. It will always provide you with at least some protection and lower your odds of contracting the flu, suffering a severe case if you do contract the virus, and sickening others who may not have as strong of immune defenses as you do. Case in point, the CDC estimates that during the 2016–2017 flu season, the vaccine prevented 5.3 million influenza illnesses, 2.6 million flu-associated medical visits, and 85,000 influenza-related hospitalizations. And because of influenza’s fluctuating nature, Lopez stresses that you really do need the vaccine each and every year.
Because it takes about two weeks after vaccination for the body to produce antibodies, the CDC advises getting the shot by October, before influenza starts peaking. However, even in the thick of flu season, say, in December, January, or even February, it’s never too late, Lopez says, because you might spare yourself or someone else from a nasty illness — or even death.
“It is tragic to end up losing a life to something that could have been prevented,” Lopez says. “I attended a seminar last year where a physician discussed how her child had an appointment to get a flu shot on December 10. The child developed the flu in early December, and within 72 hours, her 10-year-old boy was gone. My main mission is not to scare people but to really convince everybody to get the flu shot.”