Didn’t get your flu shot? Why you need it now

by Madeleine Kolb

It’s spring, and temperatures are rising.

Cherry trees and apple trees and magnolias are covered with blossoms. Migratory birds are busy courting and building nests.

So why on earth is the U.S. Centers for Disease Control urging you to get an annual flu shot now—just because you didn’t get around to it last fall? Hasn’t the flu season come and gone? Shouldn’t you just wait until next season?

The short answer is “no” and here’s why:

*** In 2011, winter was warmer and milder than usual, so the flu season will be later than usual. Maybe as late as into May.

*** Flu is a serious disease which can drag on for weeks, causing fever, coughing, sore throat, fatigue, headache, and muscle ache.

*** Those most vulnerable include people over 50 and people of any age with certain chronic medical conditions.

****  Flu can be prevented with a seasonal vaccine. This season’s vaccine protects against  two strains of influenza A, namely H1N1 (or swine flu) and H3N2. It also protects against influenza B.

*** And the most important reason not to wait til next year is that the flu virus can weaken and damage the lungs, making a person susceptible to a deadly  bacterial infection. And that’s exactly what happened to members of a Maryland family in March, 2012. 

Flu-related deaths in the Blake family

According to the Washington Post, four memers of the Calvert County family stricken by flu complications had the same H3N2 strain of the influenza A virus, Maryland health officials said Friday.

Lou Ruth Blake, 81, died at home March 1, and two of her children, Lowell, 58, and Vanessa, 56, who had cared for her, were hospitalized March 4 and died the next day.

A third child, Elaine, 51, who lived with her mother and had been her main caregiver, was hospitalized March 5 and discharged [March 8], a Medstar Washington Hospital Center spokeswoman said.

Lou Ruth Blake had had the seasonal flu vaccine, but none of her three adult children had. According to state health officials, the two who died developed severe bacterial pneumonia, specifically methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, and had developed it prior to being admitted to the hospital.

Lessons from this tragedy

Being vaccinated is not an absolute guarantee that you won’t get the flu. A person with risk factors, such as advanced age, may still get it.

But not being vaccinated puts you at significant risk for getting the flu which in turn puts you at risk of a serious bacterial infection. Possibly by bacteria which are resistant to common antibiotics, such as penicillin or methicillin.

Therefore, getting the seasonal flu vaccine when it was available last fall may have prevented the deaths of Lowell Blake and Vanessa Blake.

What you need to do

If you haven’t received this season’s flu vaccine yet, don’t wait one day longer.

You can get vaccinated in stand-alone pharmacies, such as CVS and RiteAid,  or pharmacies in supermarkets, such as Walmart, Walgreens, Target, or Giant.

You don’t need an appointment, and there’s generally little wait. (It’s probably a good idea to call ahead, though, to find out whether the the pharmacy still has a supply of flu vaccine on hand.)

The cost varies, depending on where you get it, whether you have Medicare Part B, and what insurance you have. Medicare Part B covers the cost of vaccines to prevent flu and pneumococcal diseases, such as pheumonia.

How about you? Have you had your seasonal flu shot? If not, I’d urge you to get it today. It won’t take long, it won’t cost anything if you have Medicare Part B or certain other insurance, and—in any case—it won’t cost much.

And then go celebrate by taking a long leisurely walk to enjoy warm spring weather, trees and flowers in bloom, and birds in spectacular mating plumage. And, if the weather’s bad, celebrate at Starbuck’s with coffee and some reduced-fat banana bread.

You deserve it!

See Washington Post articles about the Blake family, dated March 7, 10, and 15, 2012.
photo by richardfisher

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jeanette Lewis March 25, 2012 at 10:44 pm

Those flu shots are essential — especially for those of us who are 60+ and more vulnerable to severe reactions. Canada also experienced a decline in flu cases during the 2012 winter. In the past two weeks news reports indicate that numbers have spiked. It seems strange that the flu comes with the warm weather — but who can predict disease? My family doc sends a reminder in the mail every October and I dutifully get my arm pricked. It is a small inconvenience to protect me from the greater inconvenience of a nasty illness.
Be well, Jeanette
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2 Madeleine Kolb March 26, 2012 at 8:39 am

It’s great that your doctor sends out a reminder. A helpful reminder along with the convenience of getting the vaccination at a nearby drugstore or supermarket for little or no money (and little or no wait) should motivate everyone to go get a flu shot.

As you say, “It is a small inconvenience to protect me from the greater inconvenience of a nasty illness.”

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3 Julie March 28, 2012 at 6:14 pm

I used to be afraid of vaccines, but anti-flu vaccines are really important if somebody has got a weaker immune system. (at my age, it is already necessary, I think) And these kind of vaccines have got really no risks, they are very safe to use.
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4 Madeleine Kolb March 28, 2012 at 8:51 pm

Very true, Julie. Vaccines are essential to protect you from some fairly horrible–even deadly–diseases. I’ve had mine and won’t need another until the next seasonal flu vaccine is available.

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5 zolar April 19, 2012 at 10:36 am

Good info about flu.. Never heard about it before because my country don’t have any rule like this
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6 John Soares April 23, 2012 at 12:32 pm

Madeleine, I agree completely with your advice. I wrote a post in October 2010 advising everyone to get a flu shot, but especially the self-employed like myself. If you’re unemployed and you get the flu, you lose money — period.
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7 Madeleine Kolb April 23, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Hi, John, It sounds as if we’re in violent agreement on this. I knew the health risks of getting the flu but was surprised to read the articles about the risks of a secondary bacterial infection, especially MRSA. That’s totally alarming. Clearly, the cost of the vaccination is well worth the benefits, including protection against loss of income.

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