Dr. Randy Martin: Flu season runs from October to April, and unfortunately, influenza kills thousands of people in the United States each year. Many people have doubts about the efficacy of the flu vaccine and are concerned about its safety. I met with Janet Keen, R.N., an infection prevention expert at Piedmont Hospital, to find out more.
Effectiveness of influenza vaccinations
In a recent study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, researchers found that the flu vaccine is only about 60 percent effective. Janet Keen, R.N., director of infection prevention at Piedmont Hospital, says that she is not surprised by this statistic.
“It has been well known in epidemiologic circles for some time,” she says. “It is a difficult vaccine to make [because] the flu changes every year.”
However, she cautions that most people should still get a flu vaccine, regardless of the numbers.
“There is an important concept that we call ‘herd immunity’ or community immunity,” Keen says. “This means that the more people who [get vaccinated], the more effective it is for everyone else, [especially for] very elderly people, young babies or people with immune conditions.”
Predicting this year’s flu strains
To determine what goes into the vaccine, experts study the strains of influenza that occur in other parts of the world.
“[The flu] tends to hit the southern hemisphere first,” says Keen. “This helps researchers predict what is coming to the northern hemisphere.”
The vaccine is called a trivalent vaccine, which means it contains protection against influenza type A, influenza type B and also the pandemic 2009 influenza. This type of vaccine gives the most protection possible, explains Keen.
Are flu shots really safe?
Many people express concern over the safety of the flu shot, but Keen assures patients that it is a safe vaccine.
“When research has been done by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], researchers have found that there are very few side effects,” she says. “[Some] people may experience some muscle soreness or slight fever.”
Her take-home message?
“Go ahead and [get] the flu vaccine. It will help protect you. Even if you get [another strain of] the flu, your symptoms will be much milder, you’ll be less likely to die [from influenza] and you will be protecting those around you.”