Our Opinion: Now's the time

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It's that time of the year when many of us find ourselves wondering should we or shouldn't we? Of course, we are talking about whether to get a flu shot. Some people are deadset against getting a flu shot and can give a whole host of reasons while others, without fail, get their flu shots as soon as the vaccine is available. They, too, have a whole host of reasons for getting the shot.

William Schaffner, MD, chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University's School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn., told WebMD that the flu is one of those subjects that is surrounded by myth.

"There are urban myths and rural myths about the flu," he said. "Flu myths are everywhere."

Even care providers are susceptible to the myths, noted WebMD's R. Morgan Griffin.

"Given that influenza can be serious and even fatal, it's crucial that we all know what's fact and what's fable," he wrote, in a column listing 14 myths about the flu.

We're not going to comment on those myths that the swine flu is caused by pork products or by the cold weather or that the vaccine can give you the flu, other than to say "false," because other myths have serious consequences.

While most people just get sick and feel miserable, losing workdays, noted Griffin, the flu hospitalizes 200,000 people in the United States each year and kills between 3,000 and 49,000 people.

"That's close to the number of women killed by breast cancer each year, and more than twice the number of people killed by AIDS," he wrote.

While it is true that antibiotics can't fight the flu, there are two anti-viral drugs that reduce the symptoms of the flu: Tamiflu and Relenza.

"However, there are instances of flu complications that involve bacterial infection," wrote Griffin. "The flu virus can weaken your body and allow bacterial invaders to infect you. Secondary bacterial infections to the flu include bronchitis, ear infections, sinusitis, and most often, pneumonia."

He also noted it's not only the elderly that are at risk from the flu.

"Some of the most susceptible people to seasonal influenza are young children," wrote Griffin. "Ninety percent of H1N1 swine flu deaths have been in people under age 65, while 90 percent of seasonal flu deaths are in the elderly. And both seasonal and pandemic flu are particularly dangerous for very young children."

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And, you can get the flu twice in one year, so it's important to take the necessary precautions even after you've gotten sick once, he said.

One of the biggest myths to be dispelled is among the young and healthy, who believe they're not at risk of getting the flu, so they don't need a flu shot.

"Sure, if you're in good health, you'll probably recover from the seasonal flu just fine," wrote Griffin. "But why suffer through the flu if you can avoid it? Second, protecting yourself isn't the only reason to get vaccinated."

Christine Hay, assistant professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center told Griffin that while healthy adults are at low risk for getting the flu, they could spread the virus to more vulnerable members of their household or their community.

"People with the weakest defenses, like children under 6 months, can't get the flu vaccine," noted Griffin. "Their safety depends on the rest of us getting immunized."

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Another thing many people don't understand is you shouldn't skip years between vaccinations, he wrote.

"The particular strains of flu that are dominant change every single year. So every single year, researchers have to develop a brand new vaccine."

What might be most irksome for health care providers is the belief among many in our Internet-informed (or misinformed, might be a better word) society that vaccines are dangerous.

"Vaccines are, arguably, the greatest medical advance in history," Trish M. Perl, assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medical School, told WebMD, because prevented more illness and death than any treatment.

In recent years, wrote Griffin, there's been growing mistrust of vaccines, including the flu vaccine.

"Some believe that there could be a link between vaccines -- specifically the ingredient thimerosal -- and developmental disorders in children, like autism. However, there is no evidence that vaccines cause autism, and experts say that we're losing sight of how important vaccines are."

If you're still concerned about thimerosal, noted Griffin, manufacturers produce more thimerosal-free flu vaccine than people use.

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"If you want your child to get it, just ask your doctor."

Earlier this year there was some concern in Europe when a study revealed that GlaxoSmithKline's Pandemrix swine flu vaccine was linked to at least 795 cases of narcolepsy.

Writing for Reuter's, Kate Kelland wrote Pandemrix was given to more than 30 million people in 47 countries during the 2009-2010 H1N1 swine flu pandemic, but because it contains an adjuvant, or booster, it was not used in the United States because drug regulators there are wary of adjuvanted vaccines. Pandemrix is no longer available to people under 20 years old.

"There's no doubt in my mind whatsoever that Pandemrix increased the occurrence of narcolepsy onset in children in some countries -- and probably in most countries," Emmanuel Mignot, a specialist in the sleep disorder at Stanford University, told Reuters.

Mignot, who is being funded by GSK to investigate the link, told CTV he believes that in some children who were unknowingly genetically susceptible to narcolepsy Pandemrix may have accidentally triggered some cases of narcolepsy, but there may be other factors involved that scientists aren't yet aware of.

Mignot calculated there may have been one case of narcolepsy linked to a vaccine for every 55,000 children vaccinated in countries that used the Pandemrix vaccine with the booster adjuvant.

According to Steven Novella, writing for Science Based Medicine, narcolepsy occurs in genetically susceptible individuals after some environmental trigger, such as in infection, that causes the immune system to attack and destroy hypocretin cells in the brain. While the data linking Pandemrix and narcolepsy is fairly strong, noted Novella, "It now seems likely that some combination of factors, including but not limited to the Pandemrix vaccine, led to a spike in narcolepsy cases among children but not adults in Finland and Sweden."

So while we urge all our readers to ask their doctors about the safety and efficacy of the flu vaccine, we have no doubt they will be told that the benefits of getting a flu shot far outweigh the possible complications of getting the flu.

Adults and children with underlying health conditions, including immune disorders, chronic diseases, and obesity, and seniors or anyone in a nursing home or chronic care facility should not think twice about getting the shot. Pregnant women, health care providers, police and emergency service workers should also be getting the shot as soon as possible.

And it's never too late to get the flu shot. Vaccine supplies usually last until December or January and the flu often doesn't hit its peak until February or sometimes as late as March.

So if you haven't gotten your flu shot yet, we urge you to do so post haste. You could spare yourself, your family, your co-workers and even strangers, a lot of misery. Do everyone a favor and get your shot.


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