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09:27 AM

The Flu Can Kill - Why We Vaccinate

Let's talk about influenza with Dr. Diane


August is National Immunization Awareness Month. This month, we are educating about vaccine-preventable diseases and the ways you can protect yourself and your family from them. Vaccines are #savinglivessilently.

Let’s talk about influenza, or “the flu”.

Here’s the part where I am supposed to tell you about the 7-14 days of awful symptoms. Tell you that your body will feel like it is sinking into a deep hole. That your muscles will ache with every racking cough that escapes your body. That you will burn with high fevers for five days. That your head will feel like it’s exploding. That the drainage from your upper airways will puddle into your stomach, and that will make you barf. Sounds great, right? Well, you’ll get over it.

And you’ll slowly pick yourself back up. And eventually you will go back to work or school.

And you’ll tell yourself, “Geez…I am getting the flu shot from now on.” ;-)

But that’s not what I’m going to talk about. I’m going to speak for the thousands of people who no longer are able to speak about influenza. Because the flu can kill. And it has

Heck – there have been giant worldwide pandemics of the flu. The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed more people than those that died in World War I - somewhere between 20 and 40 million people (though some sources list 50+ million). It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history.

The last flu pandemic we had was in 2009 (H1N1) and it killed over 200,000 people.

The flu is a “really really bad guy”, as my 2 year old likes to say. It’s super contagious (an infected sneeze or a cough a few feet away from you, and you’ll start to show symptoms within 4 days). It’s meanest to young children, older individuals (age 65+), pregnant women, and folks with underlying medical problems (think chronic lung problems like asthma, people with immune system dysfunction, diabetes, kidney disease, liver problems).

But let’s put all that aside. Let’s say you’re a healthy young person.

The flu can kill you, too. Or at least – make you really really really sick. Sicker than the majority of lucky souls who get away with the scenario in the opening paragraph.

I am a general pediatrician. During my training in medical school and residency I personally have taken care of:

  • Countless cases of severe sinusitis, pneumonia, and ear infections due to getting the flu (which then makes kids susceptible to bacterial infections like these).
  • A teen girl who was so sick with the flu that within 24 hours of catching it, she started urinating a brown substance. This substance was broken down muscle proteins. She was experiencing a well-known complication of the flu: rhabdomyolysis. Her muscles were literally breaking down and her kidneys were trying so hard to clear all the junk out that they eventually shut down. She needed dialysis. She spent 3 weeks in the hospital.
  • A young pregnant woman contracted the flu while 29 weeks pregnant. The flu killed her in 24 hours due to respiratory distress (pneumonia) and her organs shut down. The woman birthed the baby while on life support and the child never knew his mother.
  • A child with relatively mild asthma caught the flu, which made his asthma flare so bad that he required ventilation by a machine for over a week in the ICU. During that time, the flu made his body susceptible to other organisms, and he had to be treated for pneumonia and a blood infection called sepsis as well.
  • In the PICU, I cared for a young boy who was, prior to the hospitalization, happy, vibrant, and healthy. There were pictures all over his ICU bed of him riding bikes and eating birthday cake. He caught influenza in school and within a few days it attacked his heart, causing something called myocarditis. The heart stopped beating as well as it usually does, and he needed full life support. That child eventually needed a heart transplant.

I want to say, “I’m not telling you these stories to scare you.” But I am. I want you to be scared of the flu. Because I’ve seen what it can do. And I don’t want that to happen to you or your family. Yes, the majority of the cases of the flu are mild. But sometimes, they aren’t.

The flu vaccine can help your body fight the flu. If you get the vaccine, our hope is that you or your child will either not suffer from any clinical symptoms, or develop an illness that is much milder than if you did not vaccinate. The vaccine was developed not only to save lives, but to prevent millions of days of missed school and missed work.

The people who are against vaccination will argue a couple of points I’d like to discuss:

  • “The flu vaccine makes you sick.” – This is a common misconception. The flu vaccine can’t make you sick because it is either completely inactivated or it is not even the virus itself, but a protein that looks like the virus (tricking your body into making an army against it). Sometimes people get mild symptoms after the vaccine like a headache, general achiness, and a low-grade fever. People mistake this as being “the flu” when really it is their immune system generating antibodies and starting a great immune response. Also remember that the flu vaccine is usually given in the fall and winter, when tons of other respiratory viruses are circulating. Folks may catch those and the vaccine is usually blamed.
  • “The flu vaccine doesn’t work”. – Actually, some years, this has been true for some people. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations are based on global surveillance of circulating influenza strains and on the effectiveness of the vaccine from the previous year. Sometimes they get it right. Sometimes they don’t. The flu is sneaky – It can mutate quickly. We don’t know until the flu season is in full swing. By that point, the vaccine has already been made and shipped out. So it’s important to get it every year regardless. And we hope for the best. Most years, it is right on target.

PLEASE consider yearly vaccination against influenza for yourself and those you love. The flu vaccine changes every year, so you need a new shot every year to boost your immunity against the strains we think will be the “bad guys” that year.

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