As health professionals, we are cultivated and groomed over countless years of training to have a great sense of empathy. As a practicing pediatrician and father, of course I have empathy for the kiddo with his or her first ear infection or strep throat. But my empathy doesn’t stop at caring for the little ones in our lives. I’m also empathetic to the plight of one of a pediatrician’s best friends. I feel sorry for my friend the flu vaccine.
I know this sounds crazy, but hear me out.
Nobody likes shots
I mean, it’s already tough enough being a vaccine. No parent wants to see a child in pain from a shot, no matter how quickly that pain passes. And knowing that the alternative may be coming down with a vaccine-preventable disease, this form of preventative medicine is something the vast majority of families agree with.
Why the bad reputation?
Yet we still hear time and time again doubts and suspicion about the black sheep of the vaccine family.
Every year when the flu vaccine comes out, I hear lots of: “I never get the flu vaccine and I never get the flu.” Or, I hear the opposite, “I got the flu vaccine last year and I still ended up sick with the flu.” The truth of the matter is that in the U.S., the flu vaccine does more to prevent illness and loss of life than any other vaccine we offer.
So how did the flu vaccine get such a bad reputation? Frankly, it drew a lot of short straws.
Is it the flu or a cold?
The first of these short straws is the fact that we offer the flu vaccine at the height of cough and cold season. A lot of people who get a “regular” cold will think that they have the flu, just based on the time of year. Sometimes it is tough to tell if you have a seasonal cold versus the influenza virus. Both can cause a cough, runny nose and fever. But the flu is notorious for such bad full body/muscle aches that really all you can do is just lie in bed -- even if you don’t have a fever.
If you are under 2 years of age, over 65 or have a chronic condition, flu symptoms can send you to the emergency room. Yeah, the real flu virus is no joke.
Just a guess?
Another tough break for the flu vaccine is that the scientists and doctors who formulate the vaccine are kind of, for a lack of a better word, guessing. Now I know what you are thinking -- a vaccine that is just a guess? Yes, but it is an extremely (and I mean extremely!) educated guess with a long history of success.
Every year the flu vaccine usually covers two strains of flu type A and one strain of flu type B. The problem is the flu virus is smart and its genetic material will change to evade our immune systems. Infectious disease specialists look at historical and current epidemiological information from around the world to try to determine what the big bug will be in the coming year and how the flu vaccine should be formulated. Pretty awesome, right?
Protection for the most likely viruses
But wait, there’s another hitch: Because there are hundreds of strains of flu out there, the seasonal vaccine can’t protect against all of them. Instead, it does its best to protect against the most dangerous and most likely viruses.
So, yes, even if you get the flu vaccine you can still get infected with another strain of the virus. But these strains should be less treacherous than those the flu vaccine protects against.
Don’t risk illness and misery!
Now it’s easy to see how one of the most successful interventions in medicine can get such a bad reputation at times, and why I feel bad for the flu vaccine. But don’t get me wrong -- I feel worse for the kiddo who didn’t get the vaccine and is miserable with the flu.