Typically speaking I don’t get the flu vaccine. I cling to older guidelines that indicate that it is most necessary for the young, the old, and the otherwise compromised. However, a recent Nova episode on vaccines has forced me to think.
Now I should start with the fact that I am totally for vaccination. I think that the health benefits far outweigh any risks. One risk that I would like to address here is the unwarranted connection with autism. This is a concern that I have heard from students in several biology classes. It began with Dr. Wakefield who published a study in 1998 that linked a number of different vaccinations with a specific type of autism. 10 years later he was found guilty of ethical, medical, and scientific misconduct. Multiple studies since have proven that his data was fabricated. The issue is that sometimes symptoms show up around the time of vaccination. This is coincidental not causal. Again, I would highly recommend the Nova episode, I have linked to it at the bottom of the post, because it addresses many other concerns such as the risk of developing the potentially severe conditions because of the vaccine and the risk of seizures associated with the vaccine.
Personally, I have gotten the flu vaccine once. To be completely honest I felt miserable. I made it the first 30 minutes or so without any response and then got on the bus to head home. While on the bus I began to feel chilled and quite nauseous. I got off the bus, hoping that the jerky stop starts were at fault, and slowly made my way home. By the time I made it to my couch I was feeling pretty bad: my body ached, I had a fever, a headache, and I generally wanted to curl up into a ball and ignore the world. The next day I had basically recovered. This is why I have clung to the old standards for who should get the vaccine, I mean how bad is the flu really?
There are two parts to this question. How bad is the flu for me? And how bad is the flu for someone else. First, the former. Two years ago, I came down with the flu. I felt it hitting me as my students were writing their final exam before the winter semester break. I had to survive two hours. By the time those two hours had passed I could barely hold my head up. I knew I was sick, which meant I had to get their exams marked before I became overwhelmed. What should have taken me no more than a couple hours took most of the day. I had to buy Tylenol and some French Fries, which were the only food that looked remotely palatable by that point. I then had to wait until someone was available and willing to drive me home. There was no way I could have made it on the bus. The next day I was so sick that we had to cancel our annual ski trip. I coughed so hard that I threw up. It took days before I could get up without groaning. Hmm… a couple hours of feeling gross versus several days of being gross. My aversion to the vaccine totally makes sense, right?
This was a rarity for me. I don’t normally get that sick but part of the thing about vaccines is something called herd or community immunity. There are people who can’t take vaccines because they have actual, severe reactions. They rely on everyone else to be vaccinated because that can prevent these diseases from getting to them. And there are people who die from the flu every year. The Public Health Agency of Canada records reported hospitalizations and deaths from participating provinces and territories; which means this isn’t a complete data set. There have already been 3 deaths reported in Canada due to the flu and technically the season isn’t started yet. The number of total deaths has been in the 300s for 3 of the past five seasons. Is it possible that one of the people who died actually caught the flu from being around me at some point? It may be unlikely, but it is possible.
I know from talking with my students that there are a lot of questions about vaccines. That makes sense. Like so many things they are science that we are asked to accept without that much explanation. And then when people hear that they contain deactivated virus, it should raise concern. The basics are that the vaccine contains either a less virulent or deactivated virus. Your immune system identifies the virus and responds appropriately. Part of this response is remembering it in case it invades again, this is the job of your memory T cells. Anyone who is a regular customer somewhere knows what this is like. If you always go to the same coffee shop and order the same drink, it is quite possible that one of the staff will remember you. There was a restaurant that I used to go to and I always ordered a raspberry milkshake. It got to the point that the waitress would just bring me my shake without me having to ask. The memory T cells do the same thing, they remember the invader and trigger the response that should contain it. Of course, if they do their job effectively, we never know they’re working, but they are.
So then, why do we have to get a flu vaccine every year? And why can you still get sick if you get the vaccine? Viruses mutate. Each year the flu virus has mutated enough that you need a new shot to teach your body who the virus of the year is. And there are many different flu viruses at large in any season. The flu vaccine can’t target them all, but hopefully it targets the ones that are going to be the most serious.
If you have questions about vaccines, talk to your pharmacist or your doctor. Check out the FAQ sheets provided by your local or national health authority, I guarantee that there are some. And beware of the internet on this one. There are some excellent resources but there are also some that are not backed by scientific evidence, you need to consider the source before you accept what it says.
I still have one more problem with getting the flu shot though, I really don’t like needles. After a pretty nasty experience in the hospital once I have a bit of an aversion. Sadly that is something that knowing all the science in the world doesn’t seem to help me with.
Flaherty, D. (2011). The vaccine-autism connection: A public health crisis caused by unethical medical practices and fraudulent science. The Annals of Pharmacotherapy, 45(10), 1302-1304.
Penn and Teller’s “Bullshit – Vaccines” (warning: as you may have gathered from the title this one contains some coarse language)