Why bring up influenza when we are amid a pandemic? Among the reasons is the potential seriousness of this seasonal viral infection – something that is easy to forget when COVID-19 is grabbing all the headlines.
The Center for Disease Control reported an estimated 38 million cases during the 2019-2020 flu season resulting in 22,000 deaths. The CDC believes the reported 188 pediatric deaths in fact numbered at least 434. There were also ~400,000 flu-related hospitalizations, including pregnant women who are at an increased risk for flu-related hospitalization and complications. While COVID-19 currently accounts for approximately 10,474,012 cases and 244,421 deaths, the flu should not be taken lightly – and it’s preventable.
Flu shot benefits and effectiveness
Generally, seasonal vaccines are about 40-60% effective when they match the circulating strains. Last year’s shot was only about 39% effective thanks to a vaccine/flu strain mismatch as the Influenza B strain struck first, followed in January by Influenza A. (Learn more about flu strains on our blog: “Flu Facts and Symptoms.”)
The 2018-2019 vaccine was more effective, preventing ~4.4 million influenza illnesses, ~2.3 million medical visits, ~58,000 hospitalizations, and ~3,500 deaths. (Learn more about the benefits of vaccination on the CDC’s ”Key Facts About Seasonal Flu Vaccine” page.)
Is it flu or is it COVID?
Minus testing, there are no definite symptoms to distinguish between a case of the flu and a COVID-19 infection – although some clues such as loss/alteration in taste or smell point to the latter. If you’re feeling off, the best course of action is to get tested for both. Yes, both because there is a possibility of having both at the same time.
Get a flu shot; here’s why
You’ll protect yourself and those around you, and you’ll help relieve the burden on the medical system. Now let me separate fact from fiction:
With the multitude of vaccine forms available today, the possibility of triggering an allergic reaction is simply not a serious problem.
You may have heard that you can get the flu from a flu shot. This is an urban legend. It persists despite no scientific evidence. In fact, all the vaccine forms except one contain no live, able-to-infect influenza virus. The only live form is one given intranasally as a weakened live vaccine that is not able to reproduce outside of the nose.
Your immune system naturally reacts to any foreign substance, including a vaccine. So if you feel achiness, low-grade fever, fatigue or discomfort after a flu shot, you’re not experiencing the flu, but rather a functioning immune system working as it should.
Recent social media posts have spread another fiction. Often citing a 2012 study, the posters claim that flu shots increase the risk of contracting or developing a serious case of COVID-19. Not true! That study is irrelevant since the 2012 flu strain and vaccine was different then, and obviously COVID-19 did not even exist until 2019.
Similar claims based on another study published in January 2020 are just as wrong. The study’s author spoke out to debunk the falsehoods stating, “The results of this study cannot and should not be interpreted to represent any sort of relationship or association of influenza vaccination receipt and COVID-19 illness.” A number of recent studies, particularly one from the Cleveland Clinic, show no relationship between getting a flu shot and developing COVID-19.
Bottom line: if you are six months of age or older, get your flu shot!
Henry R. Vaillancourt MD, MPH, a Truesdale Health member and specialist in Public Health and Prevention.