By Elizabeth Farnsworth, MD, PhD, Pediatrician
It’s flu vaccine time! While many parents are enthusiastic and willing to have their children vaccinated, as a pediatrician, I often hear some interesting thoughts about the flu vaccine. Let’s see if we can address some of these concerns.
1. We just “don’t do” the flu vaccine at our house, and none of us are ever sick.
This may be true, but it is likely that you have been protected from getting the flu so far because other people around you got their vaccinations. I would encourage everyone to get the flu vaccine to protect those who are particularly vulnerable, including babies, young children, and children with asthma and other respiratory conditions, who can get very sick and even die from the flu.
2. My sister’s husband’s cousin’s teacher’s grand-daughter’s friend got the flu from the flu shot. I don’t want that to happen to my child.
What probably happened in this situation was a) It wasn’t the flu. b) He may have gotten exposed to the flu while waiting in a packed room to get the vaccine. c) She got exposed and infected before the vaccine was effective. Did you know that the flu vaccine does not work immediately? It takes about two weeks for the body to build protective antibodies. That is why we start to vaccinate early, before the height of the flu season.
3. The last time I got the flu, it wasn’t too bad so our family doesn’t need the vaccine.
Most of the time someone says this, it turns out that they were never actually tested for the flu. Influenza makes people feel a lot sicker than just having the common cold. Most people have to take about a week off school or work, and then continue to be tired during 2-3+ week recovery period. Some children may get severe complications like pneumonia, myocarditis (inflammation of the heart), and rhabdomyolysis (muscle breakdown), which require hospitalization. The flu vaccine reduces these symptoms, including how sick you feel, how long you are sick, and the risk of complications, even if you do get an infection.
4. The flu vaccine keeps changing every year. I’m not sure it is a trustworthy vaccine.
The short version is that the flu vaccine has to change because the influenza virus changes very fast. Like any other vaccine, it undergoes rigorous testing and approval processes to ensure that it is safe before distribution.
The longer version: In order to cause an infection, viruses use proteins on their surface to interact with your cells. It’s like a puzzle that needs to be solved in order to unlock the key. Each time the body interacts with the virus side of the puzzle, it gets a clue on how to fight the virus and protect itself, making it harder for the virus to gain access the next time. The flu puzzle piece is made of two proteins called H and N that work together, that’s why you hear H1N1, H2N3, etc. Unlike many viruses, the influenza virus is very adept at disguising itself really quickly in an attempt to trick the body into believing that it is in fact a new virus. Every year, scientists at 5 global collaborative centers collect data from more than 100 countries and use it to determine which H/N combination is most likely to cause serious widespread disease. This information is then used to produce the flu vaccine for the year.
5. The flu vaccine was only 20% effective last year; it will probably not work this time.
Given the above explanation, it is clear to see that sometimes there’s a miss on the exact proteins that will cause the virus that coming year. However, your body can still recognize a relative of the serious virus and produce antibodies faster rather than starting from scratch. This results in milder, shorter illness.
6. I cannot get the flu vaccine because I’m allergic to needles.
This is written somewhat in jest, but while rare, there are people who do get adverse reactions from vaccines. If your child has gotten a severe reaction from the flu vaccine, please discuss with his or her pediatrician. Also, one child in a family getting an adverse reaction does not translate to other children in the family getting it. In fact, it becomes even more important for them to get vaccinated to protect their sibling.
Have you heard other myths about the flu vaccine? Please share and let’s discuss!
About Elizabeth Farnsworth, MD, PhD
Dr. Farnsworth joined the Great Falls Clinic in 2019 and is among the newer healthcare providers in the State of Montana. She works alongside Drs. Colleen Marron and Nancy Maynard in Pediatrics at the Great Falls Clinic main location. Dr. Farnsworth specializes in pediatric services including general pediatrics, developmental and behavioral medicine, preventative medicine, and in-office procedures. Dr. Farnsworth also has a special interest in patient education, global health and providing healthcare to underserved communities. She is currently accepting new patients at the Clinic Main Campus, 1400 29th Street South, Great Falls. For more information or to schedule an appointment, please call 406-454-2171.