Contrary to the belief of many, influenza is not just an especially bad version of a bad cold. It is a highly contagious respiratory disease that strikes suddenly, causing fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, and fatigue. Symptoms can persist for weeks and in some instances lead to hospitalization or death. Children, pregnant women, seniors, young children, and people with certain health conditions are at elevated risk for serious complications.
The best prevention is annual flu vaccination. Flu shots are recommended for everyone over age 6 months, except for individuals with allergies to chicken eggs or to certain medications and preservatives, individuals who have experienced a severe reaction to flu vaccination in the past, and individuals who have contracted Guillain-Barré Syndrome within six weeks after a previous flu vaccination. People with a moderate-to-severe illness with a fever should wait until they have recovered. Seniors may not respond adequately to standard dose flu shots and can be given a higher-dose vaccine.
On October 7, 2016, The New York Times published an article entitled “Let’s Talk a Millenial Into Getting a Flu Shot.” Why were Millenials singled out? Because a survey of urgent care centers found that more than half of them did not intend to be vaccinated. A 27-year-old Times staff member named Jonah volunteered to offer his own excuses and judge how convincing he found the scientific rebuttals (though as Neil deGrasse Tyson observed, “The great thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe it”):
As usual, the very success of flu vaccination, combined with the limited life experience of most young people, has shielded them from the realities of a truly unpleasant flu season. But the particular reluctance of Millenials may also have to do with their being the children of a cohort of parents widely influenced by falsified data linking MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccination to a puzzling apparent increase in autism. This fear, which children born after the mid 1990s imbibed with their mothers' milk, subsequently generalized to all vaccinations and led to widespread distrust of a medical establishment that has overall served us well. In fact, as discussed at greater length in my previous post, there is no scientific evidence whatsoever to support a relationship between vaccination and autism, and the original journal article has long since been debunked and retracted. Nonetheless, just a few weeks ago an article was published in JAMA Pediatrics showing no association of either influenza or influenza vaccination during pregnancy with autism in the child - a line of research that, however reassuring, would probably not be draining resources disproportionately were it not for this cruel hoax. Sadly, these younger Millenials may consequently fail to protect themselves against a number of painful and potentially deadly adult diseases, including pneumonia, shingles, and others to be discussed in a future post. They may also be passing along their own dangerous antiscientific prejudices to the next generation.
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As you can guess from my husband’s “flu shot couture,” he and I got our immunizations a couple of months ago, which is when I'd originally planned to post this entry (sigh).
Drugstore chains, having discovered that offering immunizations is a good way to lure back-to-school shoppers into their stores, now begin advertising as early as August that supplies of the new vaccine are available. Getting inoculated at the beginning of August is not necessary and may even be a bit too early. Since the vaccine’s protective effects start to taper off within a few months, mid September through early October may actually be the optimal time to be vaccinated and start your "immunity clock" ticking.
If you missed that window, however, it's still not too late to get a 2016-2017 flu shot. Immunity following vaccination builds up in about two weeks, and the peak flu season usually runs through January and February. You can be vaccinated at Walgreen’s, Rite Aid, and other major drugstore chains; or you can check online for other options within your community. It’s better to have it right now, even in late December, than to skip it altogether.