There is a slight chill in the air these mornings that suggests that Autumn is fast approaching. And the advent of Autumn always heralds … the call to arms against influenza! Already I’ve listened to one expert telling us to beware that this year’s flu virus doesn’t appear to be just targeting the young and the old (which did make me wonder which particular influenza virus had issued that press release, because as far as I know, the flu viruses would infect every human on the planet given half the chance!).
But currently, our best resource against getting the flu is effective immunisation - it’s not perfect, but it’s the very best tool that we have at our disposal. However, first we need to know why we should get vaccinated and then look at what getting immunised actually means.
The illness is caused by many different strains of the human influenza virus and can cause mild to severe illness, but there is no doubt that at times it can also be the cause of death.
- Fever, or feeling feverish
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle or body aches
A person who is carrying the flu virus is able to spread the infection from a DAY BEFORE they are aware of being sick and up to SEVEN days after they begin to feel sick. Flu is mainly spread by airborne droplet infection, but can also be “picked up” from touching contaminated surfaces and then touching your own nose/mouth/eyes.
The symptoms of flu will usually peak after two to three days and you should begin to feel much better within five to eight days. However, symptoms can linger and people will often feel tired for another two to three weeks.
So what is it about vaccinations that seems to scare so many people? Are we starting to believe all those zombie movies that tell of rogue scientists creating malignant vaccines that turn us all into dribbling maniacs?
Point one: Vaccines have become far smarter than they were a decade ago. Back in the last millenia - think the 1990's - vaccines were traditionally targeted at just three diseases diptheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough). And each of these vaccines contained several thousands of antigens - the surface proteins of those infectious diseases - that were derived from those infectious particles. And today, although each vaccine may be targeted at a greater number of infectious diseases, the actual number of antigens within those vaccines is down to 365! Smarter, safer and better targeted.
Point Two: Thimerosal. Many parents have been alarmed by media reports of the rise in Autism Spectrum Disorder and the possible link with thimerosal, BUT the scientific facts differ radically from the inflammatory headlines screamed from certain banner headlines. Several large and reliable studies have shown that thimerosal is not linked to autism and despite that fact that thimerosal was removed from vaccines back in 2001, the rate of autism has continued to increase!
Point Three: I have patients who tell me that each year I give them a flu shot, they get the flu! The influenza vaccine doesn't contain any live virus particles so it cannot cause an infection. The vaccine contains certain protein markers from 3 or 4 influenza strains and these are given to stimulate your body's immune system to be prepared for those viruses - should they appear in your community - so that they don't overwhelm it and give you the flu before your immune system is able to produce enough killer T cells to wipe them out! But we have to remember that there are approximately 100 influenza viruses continually circulating and mutating around the world and the flu vaccination will only protect you against the three most likely and most unpleasant of those. So if you do get the flu shortly after having your flu shot, it may well be another circulation influenza infection that is not covered by the influenza vaccine.
One size does not fit all:
One of the drawbacks of public health campaigns is that One Size Does Not Fit All. Whilst the vast majority of people will be better protected against the flu by being vaccinated, there are others who have concurrent health issues or who are just anxious about whether they are doing the right thing. That’s the reason the gods invented family doctors! They are there to answer your questions and advise whether it is in YOUR best interests to undergo certain tests, take certain treatments or medications and whether vaccinations are correct for you or for your child. If there is any doubt, then they are well placed to refer you on to a person who is an expert in the relevant field.
Vaccinations have saved millions of lives and will save millions more. Low immunization levels not only put you and your family at risk, they endanger those in your community who are less able to fight off infection - those who are aged, the pregnant and those on chemotherapy. If you have a concern, then ask an expert and don't rely on the headlines in the newspaper or the latest rumour circulating on the web: your health is worth more than that.