It's That Time Again: Get Your Flu Shot! 2021 Edition
GET YOUR FLU SHOT! I got mine!
Once again, more than ever, it is important for everyone to get the flu shot. I know, the last thing you want to hear about is more vaccines. Still, here's what it comes down to: last year's flu season was arguably the best we have had in years, because we took precautions against it. We wore masks, maintained physical distance (i.e. worked from home), and emphasized hand-washing and sanitizing more than any other year. Remember, influenza is a different virus than SARS-CoV-2 - less contagious, and better controlled by these measures, but still dangerous.
This year, masks are far less prevalent, and people are back at work (and our culture of "go to work no matter what, even if you're contagious" is back alongside that). So without those mitigation measures, your best protection against influenza infection is the influenza vaccine. Now, recently, an old acquaintance posted a meme saying "Remember when we used to treat the flu with chicken soup and not socialism?"
Whew. I struggle with memes that make light of deadly disease. I didn't before...but that was before people stopped taking as many steps to protect themselves and each other. Below are reasons why you should get the flu shot.
I know the biggest criticism is that the flu shot doesn't often cover the right strains (the influenza virus mutates much faster than SARS-CoV-2, hence the need for yearly vaccination). But year after year, it is shown to reduce severity and duration of influenza infection (kind of like another vaccine we know, except for the yearly part). I just got mine, I advise you to get yours. There are flu shots available at every primary care provider, and at several pharmacies, most with little or no co-pay. If you don't know where one is readily available, I would start there.
1. You cannot get the flu from the flu shot. You may get a short-lived inflammatory reaction while your immune system creates antibodies against the dead influenza virus in the vaccine (and it's usually less intense than the one from the COVID vaccine!). This is also why we do not give live-virus vaccines to those with weaker immune systems, so they do not get sick. Instead, the dead-/attenuated virus vaccines present no threat. 2. The flu kills people. Every year. Not the flu-like illness that lays you out for a day or two and then you bounce back (that's what that meme I mentioned above is actually referring to). The actual influenza infection can result in respiratory failure and death. Not always, but why take the chance? 3. If you do get sick after a flu shot, you were probably infected with something already and going to experience those symptoms either way. The flu is a somewhat seasonal virus (not exclusively), and it is that time of year. Lots of research has been done on this. 4. The influenza virus mutates frequently, so it’s impossible to vaccinate against every strain. But even if you get a strain that isn’t specifically covered by the vaccine, the shot makes it so your sickness is less severe and shorter in duration. 5. Don’t just do it for yourself. Do it for the elderly, the very young, and the immunocompromised around you, because they’re more susceptible. 6. You cannot get the flu from the flu shot. 7. Please ask questions. If you’re hesitant, I want to hear your concerns and address them. Please ask me or your doctor questions.
When I first posted this on Facebook, a friend commented (sincerely asking, not disingenuously) with a video containing a lot of misinformation from a guy who, while appropriately wary of ingredients, struggled to understand them. I'm not going to share the video because it is misinformation. But here is my response: 1. He tries to claim that we trivialize the amount of certain components of the vaccine and that their mere presence is all that matters. Concentration and amount are absolutely important and DO make a difference. Water in a large enough concentration can kill you. Vitamins like A, D, and E are essential for human life, but take too much in the wrong way or in the wrong timing and you can have some terrible effects. All the ingredients he talks about in that video are in such small quantities (and get broken down in such a way) that they won’t cause harm. 2. He claims (as many anti-vaxxers do) that he doesn't want this stuff "injected into my veins." The flu vaccine is an intramuscular injection, not an intravenous injection (which he claims). This actually does make a difference. Intravenous injection directly into your veins is designed to get things in fast and avoid issues with absorption and your body’s filtration processes – that’s why it’s used for certain fluids and medications (and IV drugs, but that’s another conversation). Intramuscular injection is designed to slowly release into the bloodstream, so that your body can take the time to break down the non-active ingredients and form the antibodies it needs to in a controlled way. Again - injecting plain water intravenously into your bloodstream can be disastrous. But when combined with the right ingredients, or ingested properly, water is essential. 3. Thimerosal has been vastly researched, even more so after people raised concerns. The video’s claims that ethylmercury and methylmercury are equally deadly are not correct – the chemistry of that one change in the compound makes a vast difference, and the body clears ethylmercury much more easily (especially with the controlled release of the vaccine as described above). Yes, it’s used as a preservative to make sure that the vaccine stays effective in storage each season, but it is safe in this form and amount. The claim of mercury poisoning from teeth fillings is also well-studied and the amount is safe in humans older than 6 (and that’s why we don’t put fillings in kids younger than that, because they’re not developed enough to safely handle it). If you’re really concerned, you can get a thimerosal free version in some places.
4. Formaldehyde is made in your body every day. It is pretty much everywhere, and there is not nearly enough in one injection a year to put you at any risk of cancer.
The aminoglycoside antibiotic is again not in any concentration strong enough to cause the side effects he mentions. I’ve seen the ototoxicity and nephrotoxicity (ear and kidney damage) that occurs with these specific antibiotics and you’d have to take quite a bit more than what’s in the flu shot.
Triton X-100 is a surfactant which is used to inactivate the flu virus in the vaccine – it’s what kills the virus but in such a way that your body can form the proper antibodies. It’s also been studied to make sure that the minute concentrations are safe in humans.
5. There are also egg-free versions. The egg is used in the creation of the vaccine, but they do make a version without eggs - you do have to make your PCP aware ahead of time because it may have to be specially ordered or arranged.
6. He makes the usual claim that doctors don't talk about nutrition enough. Nutrition is important, and it's true that doctors haven't learned enough about it in the past. We have been trying to change that, and it's why I get help from registered dieticians all the time when I treat my patients - their recommendations and education are vital in helping my patients. But "proper nutrition" will not save you from infection.
Please get your flu shot. Hospitals are overwhelmed once again just as they were in 2020. Healthcare workers are not okay. Please #GetVaccinated against influenza and SARS-CoV-2. Don't get sick with one and be exposed to the other, And more importantly, don't expose others who may be less able to fight the virus. Vaccines are a public health measure, and we must protect each other.