In 2014, close to one million people were hospitalized for the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In fact, more than 40 million people were impacted by flu-related illnesses that year.
Flu activity is picking up in Washington State this year. State health officials said there have been 278 confirmed flu deaths in the past year- the highest number of deaths the state of Washington has had in the last 7 years. They are already seeing more cases this fall and recommend everyone to get vaccinated to protect themselves.
However, many people are still not convinced the shot is safe and effective.
I had the opportunity to speak with two flu experts. Dr. Joel McCullough Medical Director for Community Health and Epidemiology at Providence Health Care and Paul Throne, Director of Immunizations for Washington State Department of Health to clear up some of the confusion.
The contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses that infect the nose, throat and lungs can cause mild to severe illness and at times may lead to death. There is a set of different viruses that can cause the influenza type of infection.
McCullough says the stomach flu is a lay person’s term that stands for nausea, vomiting, some diarrhea that can be caused by viruses as well or can be caused by bacteria, most people do not know what is causing their illness and most people don’t go to the doctor for it.
“So, influenza and stomach flu can be caused by viruses – Influenza virus mostly affects your respiratory system and other infections are causing problems in your gastrointestinal system,” McCullough said. “People of every age — including people in good health — are at risk for flu.”
Both McCullough and Throne agree the flu vaccine is not perfect but has been proven safe and effective for decades.
“I am not aware of any cases of flu vaccine causing death, they may be out there but I am not aware,” McCullough said. “I think the flu vaccine is very safe and effective for preventing flu. We have been giving the flu vaccine for many years and the federal government that license and studies vaccines deemed flu vaccines safe and effective.”
The most common adverse effects are pain, swelling and redness at the injection site. A common misconception is that the vaccination gives you the flu.
Throne explained the virus in the shot is dead as a doornail and the flu vaccine cannot make you sick with flu. It is very common to not feel great the next day after you get a flu shot and people do feel a little woozy because the immune system is reacting to the dead flu virus that is in the vaccine.
If you get the full-blown flu following the vaccine it may be because you were exposed to it immediately before or after inoculation, and the virus is incubating in your body. McCullough says it takes two weeks to fully build up your immunity to the virus, so it is possible to contract the flu in that period of time.
Many people are most concerned about the chemicals and additives that are listed on the vaccine. Throne said mercury and aluminum are the most talked about ingredients, despite not actually being in any vaccine.
Mercury compounds are used as a preservative to make sure the vaccines don't become contaminated. Those compounds are as different from mercury as table salt is as different from chlorine even though chlorine is one of the components of salt.
Both mercury and aluminum are used to preserve the vaccine and prevent it from losing potency over time. Throne said a vaccine is more likely to contain traces of aluminum but we should not worry. He said we already have it circulating in our bodies.
“We get it in the food we eat, food we drink and air we breathe, we take in basically every element on the periodic table in some way or another –that’s what were made for, were made to filter out the things our body can’t use and to get rid of them,” he explained.
Doctors find it motivating that people want to make the best decisions to protect their families and prevent bad things from happening. The CDC said almost 100 children die each year because of the flu. Therefore, if there is a medicine that will cut those risks by 50 percent, doctors recommend taking that medication or the vaccine in this case.
“That is why we make vaccines available, we are absolutely sure the best way to protect your child against these diseases is by using the vaccine science has prove,” Throne said.
“Not getting a flu vaccine can result in death, hospitalization and severe illness – so that is the other side of the picture that people need to understand,” McCullough argued.
According to both experts, there is significant research going on into a universal flu vaccine. A vaccine which would be given once or every few years rather than annually.
“Flu is a very common illness and unfortunately 1 percent of the people who get the flu will die from it, so when you think 40 million people have been affected and 1 percent may then die, it’s a lot of people and risks,” Throne said. “It costs our country billions of dollars a year in lost productivity and healthcare costs to take care of flu.”