Roll up your sleeve!

Posted by admin on January 29, 2013

Lisa van de Geyn ©2012 Thinkstock

If you're one of the 10% of Canadians who end up sick in bed (cough, cough) with the flu each year (shiver, shiver), you're no stranger to the nasty chills, fever, fatigue, nausea and muscle aches that accompany one of the season's most common illnesses.

And if you spend the autumn hemming and hawing about whether or not you should take the Public Health Agency of Canada's advice and get the flu shot, we've got news: even If you wait till the new year, it's still not too late to get vaccinated and protect yourself from this year's virus. The best time to get the shot is between October and December, but it's still effective if you get it in the winter months. Just remember that it takes about two weeks for the body to make enough antibodies to the virus to make you immune.

"Each winter, influenza continues to affect Canadians, particularly older individuals, causing much morbidity — disease, physician visits, trips to the emergency department and hospitalizations — as well as deaths," says Dr. Scott Halperin, director of the Canadian Center for Vaccinology at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax. "The vaccine is the best protection we have against the annual influenza epidemics and is an effective way to avoid illness, absenteeism from work and school and severe disease in at-risk individuals."

Dr. Allison McGeer, an infectious disease control consultant and microbiologist at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, agrees: "Everyone who gets vaccinated contributes to reducing the risk of influenza overall; flu shots create an extraordinarily invaluable safety net. Getting vaccinated not only protects you, but also any of your family and friends who are older or ill," she says. Don't like getting needles? Fear those horror stories of the shot causing the flu (or worse)? Read on for the facts about the vaccine and why you should definitely consider getting it this season.

How it works

To refresh your memory in layman's terms, McGeer says the flu shot "gives your immune system practice in recognizing and responding to germs that can harm you. That way, when you actually meet the germ, your immune system is ready to go and it kills the germ before it has time to make you sick."

Granted, there are still many unknowns about the flu (including when and where the virus will first hit, how long it will last and how severe the latest strain will be). Still, every year the World Health Organization's expert committee, which is made up of influenza experts from all over the world, prepares an annual vaccine based on the strains it predicts will circulate and cause the most trouble.

As for what the vaccine is made of, it starts with proteins identified from the virus. "The manufacturing process of the vaccine does not change every year. It's just the virus and the viral proteins that the manufacturer starts with that change," McGeer says.

Who needs it and who should skip it?

In 2011, about 8.5 million of us — roughly 25% of the population — rolled up our sleeves and got the shot. Some also had a quick nasal-spray vaccine administered by a health-care provider; it protects you the same way the needle shot does.

Those who definitely need the shot are those most at risk of contracting the flu: people over age 65 (especially seniors living in retirement or nursing homes), people who work in health care, people who have serious illnesses (cancer, diabetes, asthma, heart disease), pregnant women, kids ages six months to five years, and anyone who lives with people in the categories above.

There are only a few groups that Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization says should not get the vaccine: anyone younger than six months of age, and people who have had anaphylactic (allergic) reactions to vaccination or developed Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare condition in which the immune system attacks the nerves.

Debunking myths

Myth: The flu shot doesn't work "As with everything else — think: is the earth flat? — we depend on scientific evidence about whether the flu shot works," McGeer says. "There is overwhelming evidence that getting the flu shot protects people from illness and death. The shots don't work all the time, just as following the rules of the road doesn't always protect you from accidents, and not smoking doesn't always protect you from lung cancer. But they work well enough to be important," she says.

Myth: Healthy adults don't need to be vaccinated Actually, healthy adults can help keep everyone else flu-free if they get the shot. "Anyone without immunity to the flu virus is susceptible to becoming infected if they come in contact with the virus," says Halperin. And an infected person can pass it on to susceptible people. "Young infants and older individuals don't respond to the vaccine as well, which is another reason it's so important for the rest of Canadians to be immunized — to protect the most vulnerable amongst us."

Myth: You can get the flu from the flu shot The viruses used in vaccines are disarmed so they cannot replicate and cause serious illness. So, McGeer says, there's no chance of getting the flu from the shot. "These vaccines are made from parts of the influenza viruses that have already been killed and do not give you an infection," she says. "The nasal-spray vaccine is made from living influenza viruses that are treated so that they don't make you sick, but they can cause a minor infection and a bit of a runny nose." Sometimes your immune system's reaction to the virus particle can cause minor symptoms. "You can get a sore arm, and occasionally, some people feel generally unwell for a day or so after the shot, but that is a side effect of the vaccine; it's not the flu," Halperin says. The experts agree that the benefits of the shots far outweigh the harms.