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There are a lot of questions and misunderstandings about flu prevention and about the shot specifically. Here’s a small list of some of those questions. If the answer you’re looking for isn’t here, please feel free to send me an email, and always, always talk to your doctor. They are your best source of information about how to protect you and your family, and how to prevent spreading illness to other families who may be more vulnerable. Please know that I am not a doctor and I am answering these questions in my own voice, but I have had this reviewed by health care professionals to confirm the facts.

 

Questions!
Can I get the flu from the flu shot?
Isn’t it better for our bodies to build a natural immunity to the flu?
How effective is the flu shot?
Isn’t it pointless if it isn’t 100% effective?
My kids hate shots. Can we do the mist instead?
I’m not in a high risk group. Do I still need the shot?
Can I get the flu shot while pregnant?
Can’t I just stay home when I get sick?
I’m allergic to eggs. What are my options?
Aside from the flu shot, what else can I do?

 

Can I get the flu from the flu shot?

No! The flu shot is inactive and can’t give you the flu. What this means is that it contains what is, essentially, dead flu strains. When injected your body sees them and trains itself to fight them, but without the risk of actually contracting the viruses. Many people believe that they have gotten the flu from the shot, but the two best explanations for this are that they either contracted the flu before the shot could take effect (it takes up to two weeks to work!), or their flu-like symptoms are from another illness. Unfortunately there are a lot of bugs floating around during cold and flu season, and many illnesses are assumed to be the flu.

Isn’t it better for our bodies to build a natural immunity to the flu?

I hear this a lot, and I know that I’m the type of parent who looks at my filthy kids after playing in the playground and says, ‘yay, immune system!’ But there are a lot of illnesses that I’d like to prevent them having, if I can. All three were vaccinated against the flu last year, and with Jude’s diagnosis they now believe that all three likely had influenza B, given all the known information. And I can’t believe how insanely sick Isla and Thomas were. If we could have skipped that entirely forever, that would have been my choice. What the flu shot does is help your immune system learn how to fight the flu without actually having to *have* the flu. CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) has a great article about natural vs. acquired immunity, which is great if you’re wondering about what would be the better choice for yourself or your kids.

How effective is the flu shot?

‘Your kids were vaccinated and they still got the flu?’ Yes. But let’s break that down. The 2015-2016 flu shot was approximately 50% effective*. That might not sound great, but consider that the flu is a constantly moving target. Each year teams evaluate what is happening globally and work to try to find the best vaccine based on the patterns in other parts of the world (with different flu seasons). It’s difficult to predict exactly which strains will become a problem in North America each year, but that is unfortunately the nature of the flu. It changes every year, and so it’s a huge undertaking to try to fight it every year. Given that, 50% is actually pretty amazing. Unfortunately, my kids fell in the other half – but a lot of people who got the shot last year were saved from getting the flu, and so also prevented themselves from passing it on to those around them. That’s a big victory!

*50% is approximate, as it’s difficult to pin down exact numbers because of reporting and testing, so you may find some variation from one report to the next depending on a number of factors.

UPDATE: December 15, 2017: It’s too early to know exactly how this year’s flu shot will perform in North America, but there are some numbers out right now showing us the early effectiveness rates for each strain in Australia through this past season. The H3N2 component is not as good of a match as we’d like to see, but it can still offer some protection, and the other components are expected to be better matches. We dug into the details in a post on December 7 – take a look!

Isn’t it pointless if it isn’t 100% effective?

I’ve had a lot of people ask me since learning the cause of Jude’s death if I feel like getting them the shot was a waste. The answer is a firm no. While I wish with all my heart that the shot could have prevented them from having the flu at all, there’s also strong research showing that if you do get the flu after having the shot, the effects will likely be much less severe than if you hadn’t had the shot. Jude died – but Isla and Thomas didn’t. They both got very, very sick, but then they got better. Maybe the shot didn’t make any difference at all in how their bodies reacted to the virus, but maybe it prevented their symptoms from being even more severe. I also want to be clear that most healthy people without compromised immune systems typically recover 100% from the flu. Death is the exception, not the rule. But even taking that off the table, the flu is a terrible thing to have. You don’t want it. You don’t want your kids to have it.

And not to put too fine a point on it – if I hadn’t had them all vaccinated I would never, ever be able to forgive myself for Jude’s death, knowing that I had the information to protect him. There is some peace in knowing that we gave his body every weapon we had to fight the flu. The vast majority of people who die from the flu were unvaccinated.

My kids hate shots. Can we do the mist instead?

Sad news, you guys. While last year’s shot was approximately 67% effective, the mist (a nasal spray containing an active flu virus) was only 3% effective. If you’re offered this as an alternative, take a hard pass and go for the shot instead. I know it sucks. I haaaaaaated taking a toddler and two infants in for shots. But get the shot, then go for ice cream and have some snuggles.

Update: Since writing this section Ontario has decided to move forward with offering Flumist, despite the findings in the US. I urge you to talk to your physician to decide which choice is right for your kids. We are moving forward with our plan for shots with ice cream and snuggles.

I’m not in a high risk group. Do I still need the shot?

Okay, this is going to be a multi-part answer. Bear with me.

While you may not be in one of the higher risk groups, you are still vulnerable to contracting the flu, and that could put you out of commission for days or weeks. If you don’t want to be sick, this is your best first line of defense. Did I mention how really terrible it is to be sick with the flu? You don’t want the flu.

If you aren’t worried about whether or not you get the flu, from there it’s worth considering who is around you that you could pass it on to. Do you ever have contact with young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems (eg: cancer patients and others with underlying health issues)? All of these people are more vulnerable and could face much greater symptoms, and because of their decreased ability to fight off the flu, they rely on the rest of us to keep them safe. Let’s say it bluntly – these people are more likely to experience the most severe impact of the flu (including death) and if the rest of us are walking around unvaccinated, we’re one more way that they can contract the flu.

‘I’m only ever around other healthy adults who do not have compromised immune systems.’ Cool! Who do they have at home?

This is where it becomes a problem – the way it spreads from one person to the next, and to all of those people they’re in contact with, and so on. Jude was not Patient A. No one at Isla’s school was Patient A. None of their parents were Patient A. Someone passed it on to someone else, who passed it on to someone else, and so on until almost an entire kindergarten class got sick, and all of those kids took it home to their families. And then Jude died. And if one person in that chain that brought the flu home to us had made a different choice, we would probably still have him. It isn’t one single person’s fault – but it is something that could have been prevented if we, as a whole, were more careful with public health. You may have heard of the term ‘herd immunity‘, or ‘community immunity’. With the advent of vaccines we’ve seen the eradication or near-eradication of diseases that used to permanently affect or kill people, including smallpox and polio. You never hear of anyone getting smallpox anymore, right? That’s thanks to herd immunity. The problem is that it needs a high level of participation to protect the herd – the community. The more people getting the shot, the better the health of everyone. And the vaccination rates for the flu are… not as high as we need them to be for the community. This puts more vulnerable groups at an even higher risk.

So as the parent of a wonderful child who died from the flu, my answer is that yes, the shot is still your best chance at protecting not only yourself, but everyone in your community.

Can I get the flu shot while pregnant?

Yes! Talk to your doctor. Pregnancy puts both you and your baby at higher risk. Getting the shot while you’re pregnant will help protect both of you, and as an added bonus, your baby will develop his or her own immunity while in utero, bringing some protection after delivery. Babies under six months are too young for flu vaccinations, and this helps keep them safe in that space between birth and their first flu shot. Ask your doctor for advice for the best time in your pregnancy to get your shot.

Can’t I just stay home when I get sick?

You should definitely do this! But keep in mind that you can be contagious before symptoms develop. You can already have passed on the flu to the people around you before you develop a fever or a sniffle. So while this is an excellent idea, getting the shot decreases your chance of getting that fever or sniffle in the first place, and reduces the chance that you’ll pass it on to those around you. (But seriously, stay home when you’re sick. No one else wants it!)

I’m allergic to eggs. What are my options?

Those growing up with egg allergies and sensitivities haven’t had the opportunity to get the flu shot. Good news! A new version that is completely egg-free has very recently become available. If your allergy or sensitivity is less severe than you may be able to have the standard shot. Talk to your doctor and request this vaccine to protect yourself and those around you.

Aside from the flu shot, what else can I do?

Excellent question! Whether you get the shot or not, click here for other things you can do to help protect yourself and those around you from the flu.