October 11, 2020

bust a twindemic

Last week I got my flu shot at work. I love that they make it easy. Years back, organizations did not give them to you or make it mandatory. They expected you to get it from your doctor. One year back in the 90’s, due to call and generally being busy, I did not have time to get my flu shot early. I hadn’t made it a priority. By Thanksgiving, I was laid low with fevers of 103 degrees, body aches, and coughing fits. I was in bed for a week and then coughed for a month. Since then, I am almost always the first in line for my flu shot.

Flu shots work. They may not always prevent infection, but data shows they cut down on severity. That is what I experienced a few years ago when I got my flu shot in October and developed the flu in early December. This time, I was only laid low for 3 days and my max temperature was 101. Still not fun.

Influenza is a different virus than coronaviruses. There are several types and the most common one is Influenza A. Interestingly, it mutates every year and occasionally combines with viruses from other animals, like the Swine flu or Bird flu, or recombines in new forms, such as H1N1. This allows it to hide from our immune systems and reinfect us. This is why the flu vaccine needs to be updated and adjusted yearly to remain effective. The US bases its influenza vaccine on the circulating viruses in the southern hemisphere during their winter, because the mutated virus will then make its way north for our winter. The CDC and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of the United States Public Health Service always make their best guess, sometime better than others, but overall the flu vaccine is effective and safe. The notable exception is when the vaccine for the Swine flu was rushed before a presidential election in 1976 and there was an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome due to the vaccine. Still rare, but alarming. Since then, they have worked to keep that from happening. But poor outcomes like these, even if rare, are why the companies working on a coronavirus vaccine are taking their time to watch for unexpected side effects. They understand the cost to the public trust, if this is not done.

All public health officials recommend getting the flu vaccine now to protect you through the winter. It is possible to get Covid-19 and influenza at the same time, which would complicate things further for the person infected, but even just having influenza, can make someone think they have Covid-19. The New York Times has a great article that can help you tell the difference, but it is still not easy. A flu shot can prevent the confusion.

A flu shot is good to get, even if we don’t have a big influenza season this year. The CDC has great resources for monitoring and tracking influenza as it spreads across the country. Interestingly, the amount of flu in the US dropped drastically in March when the economy shut down to flatten the curve of Covid-19 infections. Also, the amount of flu in the southern hemisphere is way down compared to other years. For instance, Argentina usually has between 1500 and 5000 cases yearly but so far has only had 53 cases. It remains to be seen what kind of flu season will we have this year. I suspect that our mask wearing, hand washing, and physical distancing will help cut down on cases of flu. That is a good thing.

Wash your hands, cover your nose, keep safe six, and get your flu shot.