Flu deaths happen every year

On Sept. 29, 2009, my athletic 38-year-old cousin Shelby died from contracting the flu. Few people think they’ll die from the flu. Even those who continuously evaluate statistics in health care think, “it can’t possibly happen to me.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, flu deaths range from 12,000 to 61,000 in any given year. Compared to 40,000 deaths annually related to motor vehicle crashes, these numbers are staggering.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar likened getting the flu vaccine to wearing a seat belt in a vehicle, calling it “a sensible precaution.”

The flu vaccination is the most important way to protect ourselves against the most serious cases of flu, its complications on other bodily systems, and flu deaths.

Why don’t we get vaccinated?

The answers are as varied as the population. A RAND Corporation study of unvaccinated adults found that 28% did not feel they needed the vaccine. They often cited being young and healthy, feeling that if they contracted the flu their body would effectively fight it.

In fact, many people have become more concerned with the consequences of vaccination than that of the flu. Some continue to insist that we may not gain immunity from the current vaccine, although science supports the necessity and safety of flu vaccinations for all ages. This, however, is not the case, as flu vaccines undergo extensive testing for safety and produced under rigorously high standards.

Often, people complain that vaccines give them the flu. This claim has little basis in scientific fact, inactivated or dead proteins and viruses compose the vaccinations. Labs now even make vaccines produced and grown in cells which don’t have an egg-based medium, further mitigating any risk.

Others believe the misconception that immunizations, including flu vaccinations, may have harmful side effects, including flu deaths. According to the World Health Organization, serious adverse reactions rarely occur. Statistics cite one per thousands of doses. Minor side effects may include:

  • muscle aches
  • low-grade fever
  • mild headache
  • fatigue

These side effects typically prove short-lived.

When it comes to flu prevention, the vaccine isn’t perfect. Even when the vaccine matches well against the most dominant strain, effectiveness falls between 40% to 60%. This results from the existence of several types of flu, making it difficult to know which will cause the most illness. Typically, influenza A occurs more at the beginning of flu season and is responsible for most flu cases. Influenza B occurs toward the end of the season. Generally, vaccines target two strains of influenza A and B.

When and why should you get vaccinated?

Many medical experts suggest October as the most effective time. If patients get the flu vaccine during the summer, effectiveness may decrease by the height of flu season. A European study reported that effectiveness began to decline three months after vaccine receipt. Even late in the flu season, medical professionals still recommend the vaccine.

Experts encourage everyone to receive the flu vaccine, but it becomes essential for those who have pre-existing conditions and those older or younger in age. Children from 6 months to 8 years of age should receive two doses. It’s best to administer the initial dose as soon as it’s available, with the second dose given four weeks later. For people over the age of 65, the seasonal flu vaccine should contain adjuvant, an ingredient added to the vaccine to create a stronger immune response.

While flu vaccines have become widely advertised, they often fall in the center of heated debate and often considered acceptable to refuse. Many opt to receive the vaccination only with medical advice. Healthcare professionals declining vaccination and coming in contact with patients on a routine basis, especially those patients suffering from immunosuppression, exposes a grey area.

The ethics of mandated vaccines for healthcare workers have valid arguments for and against.

Supporters of mandated flu vaccines argue an ethical duty of the healthcare worker. Proponents suggest it’s the best way to protect the immunocompromised patient. Those against mandated vaccination argue that requiring healthcare workers to receive the flu vaccine denies them the autonomy to make their own healthcare decisions. There’s also the argument that being denied a position because of personal medical concerns is unjust. To address these concerns, there are alternatives to mandates, such as requiring those not vaccinated to wear a surgical mask during all patient contact.

Using herd immunity to fight flu deaths

The flu vaccine benefits from herd immunity. According to a University of Minnesota study, getting a flu shot can help prevent the virus from spreading in the community and might convince people to get vaccinated. At least 70% of a community’s population must receive the vaccine to have a positive effect on herd immunity. The hope is that when people are educated on the importance of herd immunity, more individuals will opt to receive the vaccine.

“The more people who are vaccinated in a community, the lower the risk that influenza will be able to spread even if the vaccine does not perfectly protect against the disease,” reported Nicole Basta of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Getting vaccinated might not prevent someone from contracting the flu. But, it does reduce the severity of the illness, as well as flu deaths and hospitalizations.

Antiviral drugs may be used to treat flu illness. Individuals under age 5 and over age 65, or pregnant women, should begin treatment as soon as symptoms develop, typically within 48 hours. Prompt treatment can mean the difference between having a mild or serious illness.

Flu can be a serious disease burden each year. Forecasting can help predict when flu season will peak as well as the disease’s progression through a population. Even when the flu vaccine is not a good match, it provides some protection against influenza.

This flu season, the CDC reported the prevalence of influenza B at the beginning of the season as a contributing factor to the high number of active flu cases.

Flu vaccination is an individual decision. Research current trends to make an educated, informed choice for yourself. Practicing good hand hygiene and maintaining a healthy lifestyle can also help you navigate this flu season.

Learn more about vaccinations and how they relate to EMS in our course about ambulance safety, culture of safety, evidence-based guidelines, and hygiene and vaccinations.