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The truth about vaccines is the best medicine

By Glenn Ellis
On November 8, 2015

Knowing the facts about what goes into the vaccinations and how the flu spreads will put your mind at ease.

Every year in the United States, 5 to 20 percent of the population gets the flu, more than 200,000 people have to be hospitalized from flu-related complications, and about 36,000 people die from flu-related causes.

While seasonal flu outbreaks can happen as early as October, influenza activity typically peaks in January or later. During the past 26 flu seasons, months with the heaviest flu activity were:

  • November for one season
  • December for four seasons
  • January for five seasons
  • February for 12 seasons
  • March for four seasons

Older people, young children and people with health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease are at higher risk for serious flu complications.

Flu viruses are thought to spread mainly through people with the illness coughing or sneezing, but touching something with flu viruses on it and then touching the mouth or nose can also be infectious. Most healthy adults may be able to infect others only one day before symptoms develop and up to five days after becoming sick.

That means they may be able to pass on the flu to someone else before knowing they’re sick, as well as while they’re sick.

The term “stomach flu” is sometimes used to describe illnesses with nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, symptoms that can be caused by many different viruses, bacteria or even parasites.

While vomiting, diarrhea, and being nauseous or can be flu-related, these problems are rarely the main symptoms of influenza. The flu is a respiratory disease, not a stomach or intestinal disease.

Nobody wants to get the flu. But many people are wary about getting a shot that might be unnecessary or ineffective. Many experts worry about a 1918-like flu pandemic and warn of the risks of getting the virus, from being sneezed on at work or from living with a toddler.

Despite this, only a third of us actually get a flu shot. Nevertheless, health officials encourage the vaccine.

So, just how effective is the flu shot? Only as good as the educated guesses of a group of vaccine researchers across the globe.

Every February, they try to predict which flu viruses will work their evil the next fall and winter. Their three top choices are put into the vaccine. How well the shot works depends on the match between the vaccine and the types of viruses circulating that year.

In years when the vaccine strains and the virus strains are well matched, the vaccine can reduce the chances of getting the flu by 70 to 90 percent in healthy adults. It may be somewhat less effective in the elderly and very young children, but vaccinations can still prevent serious complications.

Some people might get flu-like symptoms even after they have been vaccinated.

There are several reasons why:

  • People may be exposed to an influenza virus shortly before getting vaccinated, or during the two-week period that it takes the body to gain protection after getting vaccinated. This exposure may result in a person becoming ill with flu before the vaccine begins to protect them.
  • People may become ill from other viruses that circulate during flu season, such as rhinovirus, which can cause flu-like symptoms.  
  • A person may be exposed to an influenza virus that is not included in the vaccine.
  • Some people can remain unprotected from flu despite getting the vaccine. This is more likely to occur among people that have weakened immune systems. However, the flu vaccine can still help prevent influenza complications. 

Antibiotics only work against infections caused by bacteria. They do not work against any infections caused by viruses. If you have a viral infection, antibiotics will not cure it, help you feel better or prevent you from spreading it to someone else.

Flu season is rapidly approaching, so let’s get prepared. 

Glenn Ellis, is a regular media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics. For more health information, visit www.glennellis.com.

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