Modern Miracles: The Flu Shot

Modern medicine is full of miracles, from germ-killing antibiotics that have literally saved millions of lives to the miracle of open-heart surgery.

Modern medicine is full of miracles, from germ-killing antibiotics that have literally saved millions of lives to the miracle of open-heart surgery.

One miracle I want to expand on is a controversial one: Vaccines. Like antibiotics, I believe that vaccines have also saved millions of lives by protecting us and our children from once-deadly afflictions that blighted both our life expectancy and our children’s survival expectancy. Because of vaccines, once-deadly diseases like smallpox, polio, measles and rubella have become a thing of the past.

One miracle vaccine in particular is the flu vaccine. We are reminded by our doctors and drug stores to get this vaccine every autumn. Some are pleased by it, some are annoyed, and some are suspicious. Why take a vaccine for a virus that can give me a few sniffles and a cough?

Before the vaccine was first developed in the 1930s and widely used in the 1950s, influenza was a global killer. Doctors have been struggling with treating this disease since its first recorded outbreak in the 1500s. Many of us who currently get the flu experience its typical symptoms: Cough, fever, sore throat, fatigue, soreness, and chills. However, it can quickly escalate, leading to bronchitis, pneumonia, heart failure, and death – especially in infants and the elderly.

One notable influenza epidemic unfolded late in 1918 and through much of 1919. Across the globe, the influenza virus killed 20-40 million people and affected up to 500 million people. It has been often cited as the “worst epidemic in recorded history.”

Doctors knew something innovative had to be done. Some discovered that transfusing blood from someone who had survived influenza into a sick person improved survival, which gave doctors an idea to develop a preliminary version of a vaccine. If we taught our bodies to fight influenza before it actually contracts influenza, survival would skyrocket.

The vaccine further developed with the advent of vaccine technology. It contains a dead, inactive version of the culprit virus, which compels your body to make antibodies against the real virus. Now, thanks to the vaccine, deaths from influenza have dramatically decreased. It’s amazing that a relatively inexpensive shot can save so many lives by preventing illness.

However, the improved numbers don’t mean that you don’t have to worry about the flu anymore. It’s still something to be afraid of. Between 1976 and 2007, there have been on-average 6,309 influenza-associated deaths per year – the highest being the 2003-04 season with 14,715 deaths. Most of those deaths occur in young children, the elderly and those with low immune function (those on chemotherapy and those with HIV/AIDS). This is why you should still consider getting your flu shot if you haven’t gotten one already. If not for yourself, for the health of your children and the elderly around you.

I already got my flu shot because, as a physician, I’m responsible for the health of my patients, many of whom are elderly. With the shot, I’m less likely to spread a deadly virus to my patients.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) provides many facts about the vaccine, including data on its safely and side effects, which include soreness, and redness or swelling at the injection site. Some people also report low fevers, aches and some nausea. However, because the vaccine contains a dead, killed version of the influenza-causing virus, you are not at risk of getting the flu from the vaccine itself.

However, if you have had a severe allergic reaction to the vaccine in the past or have an allergy to eggs (the vaccine is an egg product), you may want to reconsider getting the vaccine. Talk with your doctor about which options are right for you.

And above all, remember to protect yourself with proper hygiene and hand-washing. Learn about 11 ways to avert the flu this season.

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