Should I get a flu shot?

Q: I live in Ontario Canada and flu shots are routinely given free of charge at this time of year. Should I get one or not?

Asked by Linda via email

Answer 1 of 3

The short answer:  YES!

In case that isn’t enough for you to go on, here’s a little more background information:

Flu vaccinations make their way to U.S. Army in EuropeThe concept behind a flu shot is to present a safe, non-infectious version of the flu virus to your immune system so that it can produce antibodies to the virus and respond should the real infectious flu virus enter your system.  It’s a little like posting a “most wanted” poster to a security team;  once the security team knows who to look for, it can neutralize the threat on sight, rather than waiting until the “bad guy” has caused any harm.  This is the way most vaccines work, priming the immune system without causing illness in the patient.  Sounds easy enough: Kill (attenuate) the virus, inject it into the patient, the patient’s immune system recognizes the virus and creates antibodies against it, in about two weeks the patient has immunity- right?  Not quite.  There are three types of Influenza virus (categorized as A,B, and C) and many variations of each.  You may already be aware of this due to the recent pandemic and subsequent media frenzy over flu variation H1N1- aka Swine flu. According to the CDC:  “Influenza type A (strains H1N1 and H3N2), and influenza B viruses are included in each year’s influenza vaccine. Getting a flu vaccine can protect against flu viruses that are the same or related to the viruses in the vaccine.”  It is this need for a mix of viruses in the vaccine that tips you off to the complexity of what the scientists are dealing with.  The vaccination contains the three different viruses scientists predict will cause the most cases of influenza that season, but even expert opinion isn’t always perfect.  That means that even if you get the flu shot this year, you may still contract the flu if it wasn’t one of the versions of the virus covered by your flu shot.  Bummer.  Luckily, these plucky scientists are working on a universal flu vaccine that wouldn’t have to be updated every year.

There are only a few reasons for you to not get a flu shot.  If you have ever had a severe allergic reaction to eggs, a serious reaction to a previous flu shot, or have ever had Guillain-Barré Syndrome (a severe paralytic illness, also called GBS) that occurred after receiving influenza vaccine (CDC).  Even in these cases, your doctor will help you decide whether the vaccine is recommended for you.  The flu shot generally has few, and mild, side effects.  In fact, even if you are already sick, you can still receive your flu shot.  The CDC says, “If you are sick with a fever when you go to get your flu shot, you should talk to your doctor or nurse about getting your shot at a later date. However, you can get a flu shot at the same time you have a respiratory illness without fever or if you have another mild illness.”

Receiving a flu shot is also very important for anyone who has interactions with people who are at a high risk of contracting the flu and suffering greatly for it, such as those with compromised immune systems, the elderly, or very young children.  So even if you are a young, healthy adult who can survive the flu, you may pose a risk of spreading the disease to those who can’t.  This is the number one reason why every year I face my fear of needles and get my flu shot.  Those who receive the flu shot are less able to spread the virus.  The downsides of the vaccine and the arguments of the naysayers fade away when such a simple action can affect so many others potentially at risk.

Plus it’s free!  What are you waiting for?


Answered by Katie Zeleski

Answer 2 of 3

Yes. With any medical treatment the benefits of the treatment have to be weighed against any side effects. The benefit of the treatment is that you will have immunity to influenza, a virus that kills thousands of people every year. Even if you were vaccinated the preceding year, you should get revaccinated because the previous vaccine will only give you partial immunity to the new influenza virus as it mutates rapidly which means that your immune system cannot detect it as efficiently resulting in a delayed response to infection and hence you will become ill. The side effects of the vaccine are mild at worst and on the most part are caused by the adjuvant, a chemical in the vaccine which has the role of producing a response from the immune system which is necessary for immunity to be established.  In terms of vaccines causing autism and other such claims, there is absolutely no scientific evidence behind them as has been shown by numerous trials (an interesting paper on the subject is C.Paddy Farrington, Elizabeth Miller and Brent Taylor 2001 MMR and autism: further evidence against a causal association ) and these fears should not stop you getting the vaccine either. Therefore I urge you to get the vaccine and to encourage your friends and family to do likewise.

Answered by James Crewdson. James is a Medical Undergraduate at Gonville and Caius College, University of Cambridge and is also a member of the Zoology department at the same University

Answer 3 of 3

I also live in Ontario and I am absolutely taking advantage of the free flu vaccine for this year. And next year, and the year after that. When you get infected with the influenza virus you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck for 2 weeks. Why wouldn’t I reduce my chances of that happening? The vaccine cannot give me the disease. The chances of side effects are vanishingly small and, even if it only provided me partial protection, I’d rather feel like I’ve been hit by a smart car than a truck.

Plus, I work in close proximity with the public. I don’t want to spread the flu to others who might not be as able to deal with it as effectively as I can. The flu can be fatal. Why would I take the risk when there is a free and highly available solution that is safer than the nose bleed section of a Neil Diamond concert?

Article by Katie Zeleski

November 16, 2012

After graduating from George Washington University, Katie climbed the ranks in the research labs and is now a qualified Laboratory Animal Technologist. She has experience caring for animals - from sea urchins to birds of prey - and also speaks pretty good Spanish!

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