The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is asking for continued efforts to increase the number of children and adults vaccinated against influenza to reduce the burden of flu.
As of early November 2017, about 2 out of 5 people who are 6 months or older in the United States received a flu vaccination, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Getting vaccinated is the difference between getting very sick versus having a mild illness,” said John Moore, DO, FAAFP, Aetna’s medical director for the U.S. Northeast Region.
The flu is dangerous
Influenza can lead to hospitalization and death, according to the CDC. During flu seasons between 1976 and 2007, it is estimated that up to 49,000 people died due to the flu, which is known as influenza.
The flu season can begin as early as October and last until May, according to the CDC. The CDC recommends that anyone older than 6-months of age receive an annual flu vaccine to reduce their chances of getting the flu and spreading it.
About the flu vaccine
Two weeks after receiving a flu vaccine, the body begins to develop antibodies that provide protection against infection.
Each year, the CDC conducts research and predicts which strains of the influenza virus will be the most common in the next flu season. Manufacturers then develop a vaccination that contains those strains for a person to develop antibodies against.
Why get the flu shot?
Moore emphasized it wasn’t possible to get the flu from the vaccine.
“It’s important to get vaccinated before the flu season hits since your immune system needs two weeks to develop antibodies against the flu.”
“Getting vaccinated is the difference between getting very sick versus having a mild illness.”
Moore acknowledged that a person can still catch the flu after receiving the flu shot, but he emphasized it’s a far more milder illness than catching the flu without being immunized. Moore also notes many flu shot recipients experience no flu illness at all, suggesting that the vaccine provided complete protection through the flu season.
“When you don’t get a flu shot and get the full-blown flu, you may need to go to the hospital; you can get viral pneumonia,” Moore said. “When you get the flu shot, you still might get the flu, but your symptoms are far less serious. The vaccine protects you in the manner that your illness is so mild that it may not disable you at all.”
Protection through “herd immunity”
There are a few uncommon reasons why a person may not be able to get the flu shot, however. They may be too young (under 6 months of age) or had a serious reaction to a prior flu shot or are actively seriously ill. In the past, people with an egg allergy were unable to receive a flu shot, but one form of the vaccine is now made without the use of eggs, Moore noted.
Pregnant mothers who receive the flu shot pass the antibodies they form to their unborn child and provide partial protection to their newborn following birth. Some older adults may have difficulty with getting a flu shot because they may not be able to get access to a doctor’s office, Moore said.
For those who are too young, too ill, or otherwise unable to get vaccinated, these individuals can still get a partial level of protection through “herd immunity.” This means if everyone around the unvaccinated individual is vaccinated, it becomes very difficult for the influenza virus to spread from person-to-person.
“It’s very important for everyone eligible to be vaccinated to get the flu shot so that herd immunity provides a level of protection to their household, workplace and local community.”