Welcoming the New Year is a sharp upswing in influenza activity in the U.S., no surprise given the bad flu season Australia just had. It’s not too late to get your flu vaccine, and is important to do so, to protect yourself and others.
I awoke this morning to this irresponsible tweet from Joe Scarborough, saying: “I don’t do the flu shot. Sorry. It just gets me sick early and often.”
Scarborough got considerable pushback on Twitter, including:
Please do a segment on your show about the kids who have died from flu this year, something called “herd immunity,” & selfish healthy folk who lightly blow off the vax at the expense of others
— Esther Choo (@choo_ek) January 4, 2018
Dr. Jen Gunter added, “That is
#fakenews. The flu shot can’t give you the flu, that is biologically impossible.”
(Update: After the pushback on Twitter, Scarborough deleted his original tweet and then posted: “Get a flu shot. I will next week.”)
But Scarborough’s tweet may have already done damage, fueling anti-vax theories and misinformation.
You do not get flu from the flu shot, which is what he implied. That is impossible, given that the flu vaccine is made from killed virus. It does not infect, nor can it possibly give someone the flu. Perhaps he is confused, as the vaccine can occasionally have side effects because of the immune response your body is making to the killed viral particles. These antibodies will help protect you from getting sick, should you be exposed to live influenza virus.
This has been a tough year for flu Down Under. Virologist Ian Mackay has detailed explanations on his site, noting that there were poor vaccination rates. Only 27% of Australians (with confirmed influenza) had been immunized, and only 6% of infected children. Further, there has been a poor match between the strains in the vaccine and those that are circulating in the country … or, as Mackay succinctly put it, “Flu vaccines are safe but pretty crap (scientific definition).”
Part of why the vaccine missed the mark this year is that scientists have to try to predict which of the many strains of virus will be circulating the following year. Crystal balls just aren’t that accurate. The virus is grown in eggs, harvested from the fluid, and then inactivated. It can’t be produced quickly nor changed rapidly. At best, the flu vaccine has had a 60% effectiveness. An additional problem is that the flu virus is notorious in changing, or mutating, furthering the mismatch.
Who’s at risk?
Certain people are particularly at risk of dying from the flu, as their immune system may not be as robust. These include the elderly, children, and pregnant women, as well as those with chronic medical illnesses. Pneumonia is a common complication following the flu.
Influenza is now widespread throughout the U.S., with a variety of strains circulating, predominantly influenza A (H3N2). In San Diego, for example, there are 8 times as many cases as last year, now topping 3300, with 45 deaths so far from the flu. In the U.S., tens of thousands die from flu each year, though the numbers vary with the strain.
For those at higher risk, consideration should be given to treating with a neuraminidase type of anti-viral, oral oseltamivir (Tamiflu, Roche VTX: ROG) or inhaled zanamivir (Relenza, NYSE: GSK ).
There are problems with Tamiflu, most commonly prescribed. For one, to be most effective it has to be given within 48 hours of symptoms. Also, it can cause nausea and vomiting in ~5%. The manufacturer, Hoffman-LaRoche, garnered ill will and mistrust by refusing to release their data for years. There have been reports raising concerns about conflicts of interest and questioning early efficacy reports. The drug has marginal efficacy, reducing symptoms by less than one day for treatment, but is somewhat better at preventing household transmission. Tamiflu is likely to be most useful for those at serious risk of complications or death, though the data is inconclusive. Governments stockpiled the drug, generating over $18 billion in sales. This past year, the WHO removed Tamiflu from its list of “core” essential medicines.
Reduce your risk
Get vaccinated now, if you haven’t previously. While the vaccine does not work as well as we might like, some protection (~40%) is better than none.
Practice good hygiene and teach others to do the same — catch your coughs or sneezes into a tissue that you promptly discard, and immediately use alcohol to sanitize your hands. Perhaps I am a bit paranoid, but when working in the hospital, which can be a cesspool, I use sanitizer not only before and after patient care, but also after using the shared computers and phones at the nurses’ station. Do the same when going shopping or to the grocery, or handling doorknobs or faucets in public. It helps.
While it is better to have gotten the flu vaccine earlier in the season, before cases started to rise, it is not too late to protect yourself now. The vaccine, while not ideal, is worth getting. There can be minor, and uncomfortable, side effects, but for some to suggest that it causes influenza, which can be deadly, is irresponsible.