One of my most difficult memories from medical training was the death of a middle-aged mother of three from complications of influenza.
She had contracted the virus around the holidays and initially had routine symptoms, including headache, tiredness, aches, fever, sore throat and cough.
Within a few days, though, her illness progressed to worsening cough accompanied by breathing difficulty. She was admitted to the hospital with post-influenza pneumonia. Despite aggressive treatments, she continued to worsen until she eventually succumbed to the illness.
In the wake of her passing, the medical team conducted a full analysis of her illness and related care, seeking answers that might improve the care of others. Everything had been done to prevent her death except one thing: She had asthma and had not received a flu vaccine that year.
Each year in the United States, influenza strikes millions of Americans, resulting in hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and tens of thousands of deaths. While the severest illness is often among the very young, very old and those with chronic health conditions, healthy people are also at some risk.
Influenza vaccine has been widely available for many years and is now recommended each year for everyone older than 6 months.
Flu season is generally from October through May, with the typical peak in January and February. Flu vaccine generally becomes available in the late summer or early fall, providing protection for the full season. Waiting until you have been exposed to flu or have flu symptoms is too late to get the vaccine.
Current efforts target early vaccination since a protective antibody response takes about two weeks to develop. For young children who have not been previously vaccinated, this is especially true, since the first year requires a two-dose series of shots separated by one month. Immunity follows the second vaccine.
There are many misconceptions about flu vaccine. The most common is that it can cause you to get the flu. This is false. The recommended injectable flu vaccine is a split virus vaccine consisting of parts of a killed virus.
Some refuse the vaccine because of a concern about side effects. Serious side effects from the vaccine are extremely rare. The principle reason to avoid flu vaccine is a true egg allergy (since the vaccine virus is grown in eggs).
Another reason people avoid the vaccine is because they say it doesn’t protect them. No vaccine provides 100 percent immunity. That said, vaccine response rates of even 50 percent can reduce flu complication risk by one-half. The perception of vaccine failure is often linked to other viruses that circulate during flu season for which flu vaccine provides no protection.
I hope never to see another potentially preventable death from flu. Please get your flu vaccine.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.