Dear Mr. Dad: My kids are incredibly healthy – they’ve never had any kind of serious illness, and neither has anyone else in my family. I’m pregnant and my doctor is recommending that we all get flu shots. But given how healthy we are, I don’t see the point. How important is it to get the shot?
A.According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year, 5 to 20 percent of the U.S. population gets the flu. More than 200,000 are hospitalized and several thousand die from flu-related complications. Flu shots are pretty cheap insurance. But unfortunately, every year, a lot of people just like you think about – and then reject – getting a flu shot. Big mistake.
According to the CDC, just 42 percent of adults 18 and older got a flu shot last winter. And only 50 percent of women who were pregnant that winter got the vaccine before or during their pregnancy, despite solid research showing that the vaccine is perfectly safe – and may even be beneficial – for pregnant women and the babies they’re carrying.
Parents did a little better when it came to their children: 57 percent of those ages 6 months to 17 years got the flu vaccine last winter – up 5 percent from the winter of 2011-2012 and up 13 percent from the winter of 2010-2011.
Why are immunization rates so low? We can put some of the blame on the medical community. Overall, 92 percent of physicians and 85 percent of nurses got the flu vaccine last year. Although your doctor did recommend the vaccine for your family, plenty of others don’t. And that can have tragic consequences. Back to pregnant women: When a health care provider recommended – and provided – the shot, 71 percent of pregnant women got vaccinated. But when the health care people neither recommended nor offered the vaccine, only 16 percent of pregnant women got it.
If anyone in your family is at high risk for heart disease and they’re still on the fence about whether to get a flu shot, it’s time to shove them off. A new data analysis by Jacob Udell and his colleagues at the University of Toronto found that getting a flu vaccine may be associated with reducing the risk of “cardiovascular events,” which they defined as hospitalization for heart failure, heart attack, unstable angina, stroke or sudden heart-related death. High-risk patients who got the vaccine were 38 percent less likely to have one of those cardiovascular events than similar patients who weren’t vaccinated.
As happens with most studies, the researchers are reluctant to say that getting the flu vaccine is directly responsible for lowering heart risks. But they agree that it’s certainly not going to hurt – and it might well help.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that everyone 6 months and older get a flu vaccine right away. Ideally, you and your family would get the quadrivalent vaccine that protects against four different strains of the flu. If that one’s not available, get the trivalent, which protects against three strains – it’s better than nothing. Way better.