Time to get your flu vaccine (note: I didn’t say shot…)

‘Tis the season…

Viral influenza type A, HxNx, otherwise known as “The Flu“, is a seasonal worker.  Flu spreads around the world every year, striking primarily in the winter months.  That means Thanksgiving season is the time to get your annual flu vaccination.

It’s not hard to do.  Every grocery store with a pharmacy offers shots, as do many workplaces, public offices, and of course your doctor’s clinic.  Vaccines are paid for by most insurance plans, and even without insurance, a flu shot is dirt cheap.  Certainly cheaper than several days lost from work due to illness.

“But I hate needles,” you say.  Well, if you’re generally healthy, not pregnant, and between the ages of 2 and 49 years, you can choose the nasal spray (trade name “FluMist”) instead.  A needle-free vaccine!

Personally, I’d rather have the needlestick.  It’s fast, it’s accessible, it doesn’t send me into coughing spasms.  About half the time I’ve gotten the shot it literally did not hurt at all.  (The other half of the time it hurt a little, but so what?)  My kids vehemently demand the nasal option (you can request it from your pediatrician), and that’s okay.  The important thing is to get vaccinated.

Why?  Because:

  • Influenza kills.  It might not kill you, if you’re youngish and in good health, but it can make you miserable.  And when you’re not vaccinated, you can spread it to all those babies, elderly folks, cancer patients, etc. who are at higher risk of dying from flu.
  • Influenza changes.  Unlike measles or polio, the flu virus changes constantly.  You cannot be protected for life with a single type of vaccine.  Immunity to last year’s flu may not help you much this year.  That’s why you must get the vaccine annually.
  • Flu vaccines prevent influenza.  They do not give you the flu.  They do not cause autism, schizophrenia, or a craving for blue cheese.  (They also do NOT protect you from every cause of coughing, sneezing, runny nose, headaches, and fever.  Many other less-dangerous viruses cause those.)

Which brings me to my next point.  As science blogger EJ Willingham points out, flu season also means it’s the season of anti-vaccine advocacy.  I haven’t the time here to tackle the vast oceans of information justifying vaccinations as the single greatest medical innovation in all of human history, nor to list and rebut the selective, non-quantitative, quasi-religious arguments made by anti-vaccine advocates.  (Links below can do that.)  But I will say that I am deeply disturbed by the growth of unscientific thinking in our society, a society that benefits so profoundly from scientific advances, and I see the anti-vaccine movement as a bizarre and self-destructive manifestation of this.

I was educated as an immunologist.  I understand that exposure to dead viruses in a vaccine trains my immune system to defeat a live, dangerous virus.  Like training for a sports competition or a military encounter, vaccination prepares your side to win.  Get your shots.  And make sure your kids get them too.

(There’s even a “frequent flier” advantage to the flu shot.  People who get vaccinated every year have a wider range of immunity than those who don’t, and have a better chance of protection against a new pandemic flu should one arise.  See movie Contagion.)

I couldn’t possibly say it any more cleverly than Willingham does:

There’s just something about November, the crisp fall air, the post-Halloween sugar crash, that makes gives the antivax folks that desperate, near-religious urge to spread more misinformation just in time for the holidays. You know, that time of year when people travel, gather with long-missed relatives, meet new, unvaccinated babies for the first time, fly in those tin tubes of contagion known as airplanes. And take their bacteria and the viruses with them, wherever they go. Enjoy your holiday season, but please…enjoy it vaccinated.

The Internet is awash in anti-vaccine hysteria, misinformation, and honest but misplaced skepticism.  If you want facts, visit the Centers for Disease Control site, or the American Academy of Pediatrics site.  Then again, if you don’t believe doctors and other rigorously-trained scientific authority figures, go buy yourself some forsythia (the bogus herbal cure touted by villain in movie Contagion), or maybe ground tiger penis or rhino horn.  I hear that’ll cure what ails you.

For more intelligent (and occasionally belligerent) rebuttals of the anti-vaccine movement, visit the science blogger Respectful Insolence at scienceblogs.com.


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