With the heat of summer giving way to cooler fall temperatures, thinking about the flu season ahead in the dead of winter is the last thing on the minds of most people. But there are good reasons for businesses to be encouraging employees to take flu shots.
“This is a very significant business concern,” said state health officer Dr. Ed Thompson, Mississippi State Department of Health. “What flu does for most healthy adults is make them feel very bad, resulting in them taking three to four days off work. One of the ways to diagnose flu is ask how many days of work they missed. If they say ‘None,’ they didn’t have flu. They had something else.”
Thompson recommends a flu shot to protect against feeling “very, very bad” for several days, and to avoid being absent from work when you are needed. The health department encourages businesses to make flu shots available to employees, especially if the employees have critical jobs and aren’t easy to replace.
“Taking a flu shot is really a good investment in keeping yourself healthy, and on the job,” Thompson said. “I take one every year. Even in healthy adults, the flu can cause serious complications. The flu is nothing to trifle with. It is not a good idea to leave yourself unprotected.”
Flu shots are particularly recommended for teachers, policemen, firemen and health care workers. Health care workers are not only more likely to come in contact with the flu virus, they also could spread the infection to patients with chronic health problems for which catching a case of the flu could result in serious medical complications, or even death. Taking the flu vaccine is an important precaution for people with health problems such as chronic heart and lung diseases, and for people more than 65 years of age.
“For people with underlying health problems, the flu can be very serious and even fatal,” Thompson said. “These people are more likely to develop secondary infections such as pneumonia.”
Numerous excuses exist for people not getting a flu shot, but Thompson can counter every one.
Afraid of needles? The flu shot is absolutely painless due to the use of a very small needle and a only a small volume of vaccine.
Not enough time? There isn’t a waiting period at most doctor’s offices. You can walk in and get the shot almost immediately.
Too costly? The shot is $6 at the health departments and most doctor’s offices. Getting the flu will easily cost far more than that.
Have the attitude, “Why fix the roof if it isn’t raining?” If you wait until the flu is going around before taking the shot, you’re likely to be too late.
“The time to take the flu shot is now, when flu isn’t going around,” Thompson said. “You take it now so you will be protected in December, January and February. People aren’t motivated to do a lot in advance. Often people wait until they see the flu going around before they take the shot. If you wait that long, you may be too late. It takes a couple of weeks after the shot for your body to build up antibodies to the flu.”
Another excuse for not taking flu shots is the belief that the flu vaccine can give you the flu. Thompson said the flu vaccine is not capable of producing flu. People might believe that, though, if they wait too late to take the flu vaccine and get a shot after they’ve already been exposed to the flu virus. Another reason some suspect the vaccine of causing flu is that, in some cases, people have a mild, flu-like reaction to the vaccine. As the body’s immune response kicks in, there can be a fever and mild body aches. But that in no way compares to the real thing, which is three to five days of fever, chills and aches.
“The vaccine will protect against flu in 80% to 90% of cases,” Thompson said. “But you have to take it each year. The protection wears off. We also have different strains of flu virus from one year to the next. Last year’s vaccine won’t protect against this year’s flu. The vaccine keeps changing, and we have to give a new version each year. For most people, a flu vaccine once a year is a good idea.”
Children also can benefit from flu shots, particularly children with asthma or other chronic health problems. Children usually have milder cases of flu than adults, but it can still mean missing several days of school. And it is often difficult for working parents to take care of their kids when they come down with the flu. Although a flu shot is generally a good idea for children as well as adults, Thompson said parents should check with the child’s doctor before deciding to give him or her a flu shot.
If an adult or child does get the flu, seeing a doctor is recommended. Although there are no medicines that will cure the flu, there are medications that reduce the severity and longevity of the flu.
In rare cases, some adults who have taken the flu shots have come down with a disease called Guillain-Barre syndrome, a little understood autoimmune disorder that can result in paralysis. Thompson said that although for a couple of years in the 1970s taking a flu shot resulted in a tiny increase in a person’s changes of getting Guillain-Barr syndrome, the chances of getting the disease are greater if you don’t take the flu shot and get the flu.
“Guillain-Barre can be seen following any acute viral illness,”Thompson said. “The flu vaccine reduces the chance of getting Guillain-Barre. People are more at risk for disease by getting the flu than the flu vaccine. The thing to remember is that Guillain-Barre syndrome happens every year, and people have gotten Guillain-Barre whether they got a flu shot or not. Most people who get it have not have a flu shot recently.”
Thompson said there was a statistical association between the 1976 swine flu vaccine and Guillain-Barr, but in subsequent years the statistical association strongly diminished. Most people who get Guillain-Barr do recover.
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.