Don't Forget About Your Seasonal Flu Vaccine

Beth McNamara Health Guide
  • We're all in an uproar about H1N1, a.k.a the Swine Flu, a.k.a The Hinee Flu (spoken phonetically per my seven-year-old).

    Who wouldn't be? The very real parallels that have been drawn between this flu and the flu pandemic of 1918 are terrifying. But what about the plain old regular - or seasonal - flu? Should we be worried about that?

    I've been astounded by people who refuse to get the seasonal flu vaccine, yet want to be first in line for the H1N1 vaccine. I work for a primary care medical practice that offers flu vaccine clinics. At one recent clinic, this was the reasoning I heard from one gentleman for not getting a vaccine for the seasonal flu:  "I've not had the flu in the last thirty years and I've traveled all over the world. I don't think I'll get it now. And if I do [get it], I'll just suffer .... Hey, when do you think you'll have the H1N1 shot available?"

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    I clamped my jaw down, nearly severing my tongue in two, not wanting to blurt, outraged: "If you suffer through the seasonal flu, who's not to say that you won't infect many others around you who haven't had the opportunity to receive the vaccine due to shortages or lack of cash to get one!" and to follow up with, "The seasonal flu can be as bad as H1N1 and changes every year - do you really want to be at risk?"

    I sat down with Dr. Alan Dappen, Medical Director of DocTalker Family Medicine, and got the skinny on the seasonal flu vaccine and why it's important to receive a shot each year.  This post addresses anyone who could get the flu (H1N1 or not), which is, in reality, almost anyone, whether managing diabetes or not. Here is our Q&A:

    Q. Does someone really need a seasonal flu vaccine every year?
    A. Yes, you do need the seasonal flu vaccine annually, and here's why:  Unfortunately prior flu shots don't often protect us year to year since the virus capsule mutates easily over time. It's the capsule that surrounds the virus that's the problem.

    Think of the capsule like clothing. Last yea's vaccine might have protected you against the virus wearing the madras shirt, but this year the same virus mostly is wearing a red shirt. Therefore your immune system doesn't have antibodies yet against this red-shirted variety and could bring the virus into your body like a Trojan horse.  

    The annual flu shot is prepared in order to keep up with these "fashion changes" and help your body develop immunity against the red-shirted flu strain as well. Year after year as these vaccines are given it helps your body develop resistance to the many changes that can occur on the capsule of the virus. Unfortunately, most years the virus keeps changing enough to keep scientists on their toes, responding to many subtle changes on the capsule that could fool our immune system thus allowing the virus to gain a foothold in the body.

    Every year, our immune system develops antibodies against the flu virus, thus causing the flu virus to mutate against these new antibodies.  The annual flu vaccine changes each year to defend against the latest mutations. Since influenza causes a SEVERE infection that can cause you to suffer for 1-4 weeks and may even leave you with life threatening complications, take the time to get your flu shot.

  • Q. How exactly are flu vaccines made?

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    A. On a virus, the capsule is the outer shell that protects the flu virus's genetic material.  Our immune system develops antibodies against the viruses' capsule.  As mentioned above, every year the flu virus creates mutations on the capsule, not unlike changing clothes.  This confuses the immune system which allows the virus to inject its genetic material, causing infection. The annual flu vaccine changes yearly to defend against the latest capsule.

    Each spring, scientists from the northern hemisphere police the strains of influenza prevalent below the equator and predict which strains will move north in the winter.   In the fall, scientists in the southern hemisphere do the same thing to prepare their half of the world for flu season.

    Using eggs, scientists grow three strains of flu per year.   All "living" parts of the virus are killed and then the capsule is blenderized into small pieces.  It's the inert parts of the capsule that becomes the important part of the vaccine. Proteins from each virus's capsule are blended together, becoming the newest vaccine.

    Q. Is this why people who are allergic to eggs are recommended not to get the seasonal flu vaccine?
    A. Yes, because the vaccine might contain small amounts of egg  since it grows in an egg culture.

    Q. Can I get the flu from the shot?
    No;  when you receive the latest flu vaccine, it stimulates the immune system so a few people will can get 2-3 days of mild " flu-like" symptoms. This has nothing to do with being infected or infectious.  This is your immune system creating a response that in two weeks gives you immunity to those strains of flu.  

    Q. If I get the flu, how will I know if it's H1N1 or the seasonal flu?
    You cannot tell the difference between the two flus by symptoms - the symptoms are the same. However with the H1N1, the body's response is different; it is the young healthy people that are having the worst outcomes because the aggressive response of their immune systems towards the infection. It is not the infection that is causing the problem, it is their own bodies and immune system warding off the infection that causes the problem.

    Q. How do you know if have the infection?
    One of the best indicators of the flu is if a patient has a high fever (103 degrees or 104 degrees -- have a thermometer on hand. Classic flu symptoms are: headache, chills, fever, body aches, cough runny nose and very reduced appetite. Usually it comes on fast in the matter of half a day and usually you feel so lousy that its hard to get out of bed.

    Q. What should you do if you think you have the flu?  
    Call your doctor, particularly if you have a high fever. Tamiflu may help many alleviate the severity of symptoms, particularly if taken within 48 hours of getting the flu.

    In short, get two shots this year: H1N1 and the seasonal flu. If you can find vaccine, that is. 

Published On: October 01, 2009