Catch These Facts Instead of the Flu

As the weather gets chillier and we move into winter, cold and flu season rains down upon us like the snow. Despite the inevitability of getting a few winter sniffles this season, you CAN avoid flu. Here is a quick list of facts I learned in my Microbiology class to dispel misinformation surrounding the flu vaccine.


Background Knowledge Regarding the Influenza Virus

I get it, it’s annoying to have to get a flu vaccine every year. Why, when so many of the vaccines we receive throughout our lives are relatively few doses, do we need get a new flu shot every year? Well, there’s a long answer which involves enveloped viruses, single-stranded RNA, and other technical microbiology terms. While I am endlessly fascinated by the mechanics and technicalities, in this article I will keep it brief, the reason for new vaccines is ultimately due to a wide variety of influenza strains, hosts, and a high rate of mutation. While we often refer to the flu as a single disease, there are a large number of strains of the virus which cause disease. Matters are further complicated by the fact that the influenza virus can break species boundaries (think swine and bird flu). These two points ensure that there are a huge number of ways an individual can be infected. Finally, the high rate of mutation found in the influenza virus, allows known or encountered strains to disguise themselves from our immune system. In other words, in the arms race of evolution, the virus has the natural advantage.

How the Flu Vaccine is Created Every Year

Due to the traits of the influenza virus mentioned above, creating the flu vaccine every year is a large undertaking. Preparations for a given flu season are started nearly a year in advance using data from 130 countries to predict which strains are likely to be the most problematic. This process involves a great deal of statistics and educated guesswork, which of course means the process in not infallible. Which leads me into my next section…


“The Only Time I Ever got the Flu was when I got a Flu Shot”

When I remind people to get their yearly flu vaccine, this is one of the most common (and irritating) responses I get. I hope the previous two sections will give you a little more insight into why this statement, though apparently experienced by multiple people, is not true. Although officials work hard to create an optimal vaccine through data gathering, it is still possible for errors to be made, or, due to the rapid mutation rate of the virus, for new strains to appear late in the season leading to a rapid increase if illness among a given population. Due to the traits of the Influenza virus, it is simply not possible to create a vaccine that is as effective as those that are made for other diseases.

Well, at this point you may be wondering why you should even get a flu vaccine if it will not always protect you from getting the flu, and if in the grand scheme of things there are much worse diseases you could catch. Firstly, I would like to point out that any form of protection is helpful against such a common pathogen, and is well worth a small prick once a year. I would also like to point out that the flu can be a serious disease, especially in children under 5 years of age, or adults older than 65. Although getting a flu vaccine is a personal choice, I think it’s important to remember that the choice to vaccinate is far larger than a single individual or family. Though herd immunity is something that is often brought up by anti-vaxxers to justify the fact that they are willing to risk their children’s lives over ideals that have only ever been disproved by reputable studies (why, yes I am a bit salty about anti-vaxxers), herd immunity is an important part of protecting communities from disease. When over 90% of a population has been vaccinated against a contagious disease, herd immunity can protect those with no protection against the disease due to the inability of the pathogen to take hold within a population. While herd immunity can be effective, it is not without risks. Finally, herd immunity is something that needs to be reserved for those, who for whatever reason, (usually compromised immune systems or severe allergies) cannot be vaccinated. The choice to get vaccinated can be essential in helping protect the most vulnerable in our communities.

Getting the Vaccine

Hopefully by now I have convinced you that getting vaccinated is worth your while, but how should you go about getting your shot, and what are your options? Well finding someplace to get vaccinated is relatively easy, even if you do not currently have health insurance. If you attend a university there are usually events and clinics which offer free flu shots for students and employees. It is also fairly common for workplaces to hold events where you can be vaccinated for free. If either of these options is not accessible, it is also possible to get flu shots at local pharmacies and grocery stores for low costs. In terms of the actual vaccine, you also have options (though you may be limited depending on the venue where you get vaccinated). For most people it is possible to get either the nasal mist or the shot. The nasal mist, which is synthesized from a weakened, but still living virus, may be a good option for those who hate needles, or those who have had reactions to the shot in the past. However, it is important to note that side-effects, including mild, flu-like symptoms are more common with this form. The other, and generally more accessible form, the shot, is synthesized from an inactivated or dead virus. This vaccine is equally effective as the live attenuated, but may be the better option for children, the elderly, or those with compromised immune systems.

The height of flu season is rapidly approaching, so I hope this article has helped you see the value of getting your flu shot! Stay healthy collegiates!

Image Sources: 1, 2, 3