Last year, the flu killed a reported 80,000 people, making the 2017/2018 flu season one of the deadliest on record. In a serious year, there are roughly 35 million cases of influenza and approximately 56,000 deaths. In a good year, the death toll is much lower, at just 3,000.
The huge discrepancy in numbers lies in the fact that the flu virus is never the same. Some years, like last year, it is far more dangerous, while others, it is reminiscent of the average cold. The changing virus doesn’t just have an effect on death rates, either. Because the strain is different from year to year, it is impossible for scientists to create a 100% effective flu vaccine.
Unlike the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) or the Tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (Tdap) shots, which are 100% effective against the viruses for which they’re made, the flu vaccine is, at most, between 40 and 60% effective. There are a few different reasons for this, according to scientists. For one, the flu shot does not contain the live flu virus. Rather, it contains inactivated viruses or particles that look a lot like the flu to your immune system. These ingredients prompt your body to develop new antibodies that, hopefully, will be effective against the actual, active flu.
Another reason the vaccine is only mildly effective is that the flu virus is always changing. Scientists do their best to design the flu vaccine based on what they THINK the new strain will look like. Some years, they’re pretty on the mark; others, they’re far from it.
“It’s not 100% protective,” Dr. Malcolm Thaler of New York City’s One Medical says. “In a year when there’s a good match between the vaccine and the circulating viruses, it reduces your risk of getting the flu somewhere between 40 and 60%. So you still can get the flu.”
If you visit the CDC’s website, you can see how effective past shots have been. For instance, during the 2014/2015 flu season, the flu vaccine was only 19% effective. However, in the 2010/2011 season, it was 60% effective. Last year, when complications caused by the virus killed an estimated 80,000 people, it was 40% effective.
The age and health of a person also play a roll in how effective the vaccine actually is.
So, does that mean you shouldn’t get the shot? Absolutely not!
Though it does not offer a guarantee that you won’t get sick, the antibodies in the vaccine can at least help you fight off the virus should you contract it and keep serious complications, like pneumonia, at bay. The flu shot can also prevent hospitalizations and death in small children, who are the second most at-risk category when it comes to flu-related complications.
For these reasons, the CDC recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months should absolutely get the flu vaccine–unless, of course, allergies or other complications prevent you from doing so. Vaccination is particularly important for individuals who are at risk of serious complications from influenza, such as children younger than five, but especially those younger than two, individuals 65 and older, pregnant women, health care workers and individuals with certain health conditions. You can find the full list of at-risk individuals at the CDC’s website.
When Should You Get the Flu Vaccine?
The CDC recommends that all individuals receive their vaccinations by the end of October. For individuals who require two doses (typically children between the ages of 6 months and 8 years), you should start the vaccine process sooner, as the two doses must be given four weeks apart.
The flu vaccine takes about two weeks to kick in, which is why healthcare providers stress the importance of getting the vaccine well before the height of the flu season. Traditionally, flu season starts in late October, with activity peaking between December and February. However, flu season can extend well into early May.
If you don’t get vaccinated before the end of this month, don’t worry – when it comes to the flu vaccination, the motto, “better late than never,” applies. You can contract the flu at any time, be it now, in December or in April. So even if you don’t get your shot until early December or even January, you can protect yourself against the possibility of catching the virus for the remainder of the season.
Flu shots really only last for as long as flu season, so it’s important to get your vaccine every year.
Other Measures You Can Take to Protect Yourself
Though the flu shot is not 100% effective, it, combined with other self-care measures, can go a long way to keeping the flu at bay. Some things you can do to lower your odds of catching the flu include the following:
- Wash your hands!
- Sanitize your hands when out in public.
- Reduce stress.
- Eat healthy and whole foods (healthy meats, fruits, veggies, and natural juices).
- Get plenty of sleep.
After last flu season, you have every right to be worried about your health and skeptical about the effectiveness of the flu shot. However, skepticism shouldn’t keep you from taking measures to protect yourself. The flu shot costs nothing and you can get it at your local Walgreens, CVS or Rite-Aid. The shot can give your body the immunity boost it needs to protect against serious complications and lower your odds of passing the flu onto someone else who may not be able to get the vaccine.
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