This year's flu shot appears highly effective

By Dr. Philip Robinson

Categories: Featured News
It works. It's more effective than last year's. And really it doesn't hurt that much.

So if you're still on the fence about getting your flu shot, you've run out of excuses.

The flu is one of the more-vexing viruses we deal with as physicians — a sometimes-fatal disease that is preventable with vaccines and good hygiene, but subject to the community's fear of shots and forgetfulness about hand-washing.

I'm hopeful that this year will be better. The strength and effectiveness of this year's influenza inoculation seems to suggest it will.

Each summer, U.S. scientists monitor the Southern Hemisphere's flu strains to figure out which to include in our vaccine for the fall. Last year, the flu viruses mutated so much by the fall that the vaccine was only 23 percent effective in preventing the flu.

This year's vaccine, however, is proving to be a better match and is expected to be as much as 60% effective.

With stronger and more-reliable vaccines available, a shot taken today could offer protection until the end of the flu season, which usually fades around April or May. If you're still not convinced, keep in mind that influenza is more than a minor inconvenience.

Between 3,000 and 50,000 people die from the flu each year, depending on the severity of the season. Over the past six years, about 100 people in Orange County have died from the flu. At least 66 people died from the flu last year in California.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older gets vaccinated against the flu every year, with rare exceptions. But while there have been modest gains in the number of eligible people getting the flu vaccine, we are still far from the CDC's goal of 70% coverage.

As we saw from the measles outbreak over the summer, when too few of us are immunized against a communicable, deadly disease, all of us are at an increased risk of contracting it.

The reason too few of us roll up our sleeves and get immunized is that myths travel just as fast as the virus itself. Among the biggest misconceptions are that the flu shot will give you the flu. It won't.

The flu vaccine contains dead strains of the flu. You can't fall ill from a dead strain, but those dead cells can "teach" your body what it needs to fight, should a live virus make its way to your body.

Which brings us to the next myth, that hand-washing alone is protection enough. Good hygiene is a tremendous barrier, but it's not enough to protect you from an airborne illness. I speak from experience when I say that Hoag's urgent cares are filled with un-inoculated Purell devotees.

The best prevention for the flu is the flu shot. It is low-cost (or free), effective, safe and available everywhere from your doctor's office to urgent cares to local drug stores.

With the more-effective flu vaccine and increased awareness, I'm hoping that this will be the year we prevent the flu from getting a foothold in our community. Imagine a holiday season devoid of fevers and runny noses.

It's possible. But it's up to each of us. So if you can, please, get vaccinated.

Dr. Philip Robinson is medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at Hoag Hospital.