The Flu Shot: It’s Not Just About You

It’s that time of year again. The powers that be (a.k.a. the CDC) have hedged their bets on this year’s flu vaccine components, and they will be encouraging patients to get vaccinated before the end of October, so that the body has plenty of time to develop resistance before flu season sets in.

For the 2017-2018 flu season, the CDC has recommended that three-component flu vaccines contain the following:

– an A/Michigan/45/2015 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus (updated),

– an A/Hong Kong/4801/2014 (H3N2)-like virus, and

– a B/Brisbane/60/2008-like (B/Victoria lineage) virus.

Four-component vaccines are recommended to contain a B/Phuket/3073/2013-like (B/Yamagata lineage) virus. In a deviation from previous years, the CDC recommends against using a nasal spray flu vaccine, also known as the live attenuated flu vaccine (LAIV) due to concerns about effectiveness. Sure, a shot can be a few seconds of pain, but it’s better than being laid out for days if you do contract the flu.

For the first time, the CDC has approved a true cell-based candidate vaccine virus, in addition to those traditionally produced using fertilized chickens’ eggs.

Many medical practitioners will likely get the flu vaccine, but how do we encourage more patients to get it too?

Because the flu is not a reportable disease, the CDC uses modelling to estimate the number of infections each year. They currently estimate that in the U.S., the number of cases has been somewhere between 9.5 million and 35.6 million every year since 2010, with 140,000 – 710,000 hospitalizations each year.

Studies in Australia have shown that the vaccine may reduce the risk of contracting the flu by up to 50-60%. For high risk populations, such as those over 65, pregnant women, young children, or those with severe asthma, heart disease, low immunity or diabetes, every person who gets vaccinated increases the herd immunity and helps protect them from accidental transmission.

Why don’t more people get vaccinated?

When people don’t get vaccinated, it’s usually one of the following reasons:

– doctors don’t recommend it enough,

– patients don’t know that they need it,

– patients don’t have access to the vaccines, or

– patients aren’t sufficiently motivated to go ahead and get vaccinated.

Another study out of Australia found that half of the children who were admitted to the hospital with the flu had no medical risk factors which might have prompted parents to seek out the flu vaccine, or for their doctors to proactively recommend it. Of course there are other misconceptions and rumors about the flu vaccine – some people believe that they don’t need it, it’s not effective or that it actually causes flu. This means that practitioners need to take extra time to strongly recommend the virus in cases where they believe it’s appropriate and work with their patients to improve uptake. In the end, it’s not just about helping one person get immunity, it’s about protecting those who are most vulnerable too.

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Laurie Breen

Laurie Breen is a freelance writer well-versed in research communications and grant writing. She received her Bachelors Degree in Psychology from Smith College and has worked previously at the University of Queensland's Centre for Clinical Research in Brisbane, Australia. Her favorite conversational topic is "antibiotic-resistant bacteria," making her a big hit at parties.