by Barry Waldman
The party hats, the noisemakers, the champagne, the flip flop dropping – it can only mean one thing: flu season is coming. Here’s great news about the flu: there is an easy and generally free way to avoid the worst symptoms, stay on the job and remain productive.
No matter your age or health status, as long as you’re not allergic, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says the flu vaccine will help you avoid the most severe symptoms this year, and in the future, and it will help keep those around you healthier too.
In fact, the more people who get flu vaccines, the better it is for our Lowcountry economy.
Here are the facts:
The people most at risk of severe illness or death from the flu are the very young, very old and those with co-morbidities – heart and lung diseases, like coronary artery disease and asthma; cancer; HIV/AIDS; kidney disease and neurological diseases. But everyone can benefit from the vaccine, says Dr. Kenneth Perry, assistant director of the emergency department at Trident Health.
That is because flu vaccines are approximate and cumulative. They are developed more than a year before the flu season based on the best approximation of the virus composition for that flu season. The vaccine has averaged 43% effectiveness over the last decade, according to the CDC, so if you get vaccinated, you’re a little more than half as likely to get the flu and the symptoms will be a little more than half as bad. Vaccines also reduce symptom duration by a day or two.
But even if the vaccine’s effectiveness is lower this year, it can still help you. “When you get the vaccine year after year, your outcomes are better because of additive effect of the vaccines you’ve had in previous years,” Dr. Perry said.
Get vaccinated for others as well as yourself
Getting vaccinated protects at-risk people around us because the less likely we are to carry the virus the less likely we are to infect those with whom we interact. Rampant mask wearing and distancing tamped down last year’s flu season, but scientists expect a rebound this year. Prior to Covid, the flu took the lives of 37,400 people annually on average.
“It should be something you get every year,” says Dr. Perry. “We know that the flu itself can change every year to the point that young, healthy individuals might be the ones susceptible in a given year.”
The economic value of a flu vaccine
Flu vaccines inject immunity into the local economy as well. In a time of staff shortages, supply chain issues and reduced purchasing power, lost workdays from illness and hospitalization cost individuals and businesses millions of dollars. Moreover, hospitalizations are expensive, with much of those costs spread among everyone who pays for health insurance.
Imagine the reverse scenario: a low flu vaccination rate at the ports leaves a swath of employees out of commission. Cranes stand silent, cargo remains unloaded and ships sit in the harbor awaiting service. Businesses dependent on critical supplies can’t get them, delaying the production of their goods, and so on, reverberating throughout the global economy and driving up drives prices all across the world. Like a butterfly’s effect on the weather, one flu vaccine can keep a plane flying on the other side of the world.
The effect on hospitals
Hospitals are girding for a flu influx just as Covid is rebounding with the omicron variant. Dr. Perry says the Trident Health ED has already seen patients admitted with co-infections – a miserable double-whammy of flu and Covid.
“We’re preparing for both eventualities,” he said. “There’s fatigue in the hospital due to the nearly two-year focus on COVID in addition to other complex health issues affecting Lowcountry families, but we’ve got a pretty well-oiled machine. We understand how to isolate patients and have a pretty high vaccination rate among staff.”
Although we’re officially two months into the flu season, the peak is still ahead of us, so the vaccine remains timely. Most physicians suggest getting the flu vaccine separately from the Covid vaccine, if for no other reason than to have at least one arm that isn’t sore the next day. There has been more reluctance about the vaccine this year than in previous years as people anoint themselves their own experts. But the real experts recommend everyone get the vaccine unless they are allergic. To determine if you are one of the few who should avoid it, talk to your physician.