Why You Need a Flu Shot

Swine flu (H1N1) is back. I wrote about it in December of 2009 when my daughter died of it. The vaccine to help prevent it was not available to her in time. Now it is part of the regular flu shot. You should get it, young or old. Swine flu seems to attack the younger (6 to 65); regular flu gets the rest of us. Not all, of course, but some. Being part of the “some” is not fun and can be fatal.

In November, a 27-year-old woman in Dade City, Polk County, unvaccinated, died of the swine flu. Her father was grief stricken. He urged everyone to get the vaccination. In a letter to the editor in The Tampa Bay Times, I backed him up and also pointed out that I have joined the Pinellas Immunization Team for Community Health,(PITCH) organized by the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County. Its focus is specifically on vaccinating the under two years olds against childhood diseases, including the flu, but the team deals with all vaccines. More on the childhood diseases in a bit.

In the meanwhile, flu is taking its toll. That toll is described by our youngest son, Mike, who is a pediatric critical care doctor at Vanderbilt University’s children hospital in Nashville, Tn. He wrote this about the flu last week on his Facebook page:

“I harp on this a lot but as many of you know, it’s personal. I can’t discuss details, but know this: every year 2-3 kids die in my ICU alone. All of them were previously healthy. In addition to the ones who die, we get somewhere around 10 (plus-minus) who end up on ventilators, and another 2-3 who need ECMO. Most (but not all) of the children with flu who end up in my ICU are unvaccinated. Their disease course is swift, and the parents are all wonderful caring parents who promptly sought care. In the nearly ten years I’ve been doing pediatrics, I don’t think I’ve seen a single severe flu shot (or any other vaccine) reaction, but these previously healthy kids in the ICU have been a common theme throughout the years. I can’t promise you that getting the flu shot will prevent you from getting the flu, or even from dying from it. But my experience is echoed by my many colleagues across the country, each of us seeing thousands of patients a year. So the benefits far outweigh any risks you may hear about. Please tell your friends. And get the damn shot.”

Later I got these two chilling texts from him: “Put our first H1N1 onto echo 2 days ago. Declared her dead today. Healthy 13 year old. Unvaccinated.” That case was featured on Nashville television. And two days later: “Just put an 8 month old on echo for flu.”

ECMO, by the way, in laymen’s terms, is a heart lung machine. It is not a simple nor without risk procedure nor is being on a ventilator. Recovery from diseases and treatments can be difficult and slow. Even pneumonia, often referred to by lay people casually as just a minor problem, can take six to nine months for full recovery. Getting a flu shot is neither dangerous (it does not contain a live virus) nor costly nor inconvenient. If you can’t afford it contact the health department or your local doctor for assistance.

Back to the under two year olds. They get the flu, too, as noted by my son. But they are also susceptible to a myriad of childhood diseases, many of which the young generation (including many doctors) have neither experienced or seen. My generation remembers them well because we “caught” them, suffered with them, were quarantined for them, or had complications from them. While some consider these minor diseases, none are minor to the child nor are they without serious and sometimes fatal consequences. It’s no coincidence that many of these are rare today. Vaccines have either curtailed or eradicated many diseases, but mass inoculation keeps them at bay. When a large number of people refuse vaccinations the diseases recur. Hence, nationwide, we have the largest outbreak of measles and whooping cough(pertussis) in years. However, there are also mumps, chicken pox, diphtheria, tetanus, small pox and polio and meningitis to worry about.

Few remember polio these days, a crippling disease nearly eliminated by the Salk and Sabin vaccines. My generation literally feared polio and worried about catching it, or it catching us. Those vaccines were miracles for us. Nonetheless pockets remain in Pakistan (the Taliban kills vaccinators) and now in Syria. These are only a plane ride away. In fact, the mobility of the world population exposes us to all these diseases. Just think what small pox and other European diseases did to the native North and South American natives.

Doctors treat illnesses and doctors like my son handle the critically ill when preventive care is no longer valid. However, most doctors, are trying to keep patients from getting sick. Pediatricians are the real front lines and their most effective weapons are vaccines. But, they can’t force them on the children. As one ad for vaccine reads: “which of these diseases do you want your child to have?”

Don't be shy. Tell us what you think.