The flu has been in the news—and the news is not good. This year’s strain seems to be particularly “viral,” spreading quickly and overwhelming hospitals and clinics. There have also been reports that this year’s influenza vaccination, better known as the “flu shot,” will not protect against the H3N2 strain (this season’s most common strain), but influenza expert, Shane Speights, D.O., site dean and associate professor of Medicine at NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine (NYITCOM) at Arkansas State University (A-State), contends that the vaccine’s benefits still far outweigh the risks. People who forego vaccination, he says, could be putting themselves and others in danger.
“The biggest complaint I hear from patients is that ‘the flu shot didn’t work because I still got the flu,’ which comes from their misunderstanding of what a vaccine does and doesn’t do,” says Speights. “Basically, a vaccine is an injection of a small amount of a virus or bacteria that’s just enough to trigger the immune system to recognize it. Once triggered, the immune system creates memory cells, which allow the body a jump start on fighting the virus/bacteria in future instances.”
Last season, the vaccine was estimated to be approximately 32 percent effective against the H3N2 viruses. While this year’s CDC preliminary estimates will not be available until later in the season, the agency estimates that this season’s current vaccine will only be as effective as last season against the H3N2 strain.
Although the flu vaccine can be anywhere from 30 to 60 percent effective in preventing the virus, according to the CDC, it can also offer other benefits, including:
- Offering protection from other flu strains in circulation.
- Reducing the risk of illness or spreading the virus to vulnerable populations, including the elderly, the sick, or babies who are too young for vaccination.
- Reducing symptoms and length of illness if you do get the flu.
The reason for the last benefit has everything to do with those newly created memory cells. According to Speights, it can be the difference between feeling mildly ill for two to three days, or being bedridden—or worse hospitalized—for up to a week with significant muscle aches, fever, cough, and fatigue. So even though January and February is peak flu season, there are still reasons to get the shot.
As for those worried getting the flu shot will make them sick, Speights has this to say: “When the body is creating those memory cells, it causes an inflammatory response. So that mild ache, fatigue, or runny nose that only lasts a day or so after you got your flu shot is a good sign—it means it worked.”
Watch Speights’ recent public service announcement offering tips to stay healthy during flu season.
NYITCOM at A-State’s Dean Speights discusses how you can fight the flu.
By Kim Tucker