I encourage all my patients to be vaccinated against the flu. I am always happy to take the time to discuss vaccinations with them, answer any questions, and explain how vaccinations prevent diseases.
Among the many reasons that people choose not to get the flu vaccine, one of the arguments that I hear on occasion is that they think their immune system will be weakened by vaccination.
It is becoming apparent that exposure to some things in nature early in life (like bacteria while playing in the dirt) is a good thing for developing a robust immune system. Exposure to some things in nature strengthens the immune response, but unfortunately, this exposure does not provide adequate protection from things that we have developed vaccines for, like influenza.
Vaccines are doing something similar to what letting your child play in the dirt does, only in a more controlled way. When you get a flu vaccine, you are being exposed to a tiny snippet of the virus that is most likely to cause illness in the coming winter. The snippet will not make you sick, but it will make your immune system take notice. Your immune system then creates antibodies, which stay in your body and watch for more of the snippet.
When you get exposed to the entire virus, your immune system recognizes the snippet within the intruder. The antibodies you already have because of the vaccine go after the virus, attack it, and prevent you from getting sick or from getting as sick as you would without having had the vaccine. So, vaccines do not weaken your immune system, they prepare and strengthen it to keep you from getting severely ill. If you get the flu vaccine every year, you develop an array of antibodies that protect you into the future.
We are lucky in the United States, the flu is – for the vast majority of people – a survivable illness. But that does not mean that it is just a nuisance without consequences. Even with treatment, you may miss between one and two weeks of work due to illness. Every year people die from the flu. Some of those are people we would expect to be at risk due to frail health, but some are just every day folks like you and me. Two years ago, I cared for an otherwise healthy teenage girl who developed brain inflammation from the flu. She spent a couple of weeks in the intensive care unit, and experienced a lengthy, but fortunately, full recovery.
The evidence that vaccines do not cause autism is overwhelming. There has been study after study after study that proves there is no link between them. The journal in which the original study was published has since denounced it as “utterly false.” Vaccines are safe and an important part of doing everything you can to keep healthy.
You not only keep yourself healthy when you get vaccinated against the flu, you keep people you may come in contact with who cannot get a vaccine healthy too. This could be an infant who is too young to be vaccinated or someone with a medical complication that prevents him or her from getting vaccinated.
Overall, most people can and should get vaccinated against the flu. There are two types of flu shot available (intradermal and high-dose) and a nasal spray vaccine for people who are allergic to eggs or cannot get the flu shot for other reasons. Recent studies indicate that the nasal spray is not as effective, so I recommend and get the flu shot myself. Talk with your health care provider about the best way for you to get vaccinated.
Dr. Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician practicing at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.