So far, it’s been a pretty uneventful flu year with no scary new strains. We picked the right flu virus to make vaccine out of, so it’s a one-shot year.
When discussing the flu, “same old-same old” means 41,000 people will die in this country of the flu this winter. That’s as many people as get killed on U.S. highways in a year. It would be nice to be able to vaccinate against automobile deaths, wouldn’t it?
Most of the flu deaths will be people 65 or older. Most of them will catch the flu from younger people around them.
We get the flu vaccine or not according to our own private equation, weighing our health, the chance of getting the flu, our memory of last winter, and the hassle factor of both illness and getting the vaccine. All this is almost unconscious, and steers us either toward or away from opportunities for vaccination. Public health folks tear their hair out trying to convince us of the benefits of herd immunity.
I recently came across some data that looked at flu vaccination from a different perspective. The study looked at respiratory illness rather than just flu. Respiratory illness includes anything that makes you congested and cough, presumably 20 dozen different cold viruses and the flu. They vaccinated a bunch of healthy working adults and watched what happened. Those vaccinated adults had 25 percent fewer respiratory illnesses, 43 percent less sick days from respiratory illness, and 44 percent fewer visits to a physician for a respiratory illness. The savings on average for each person vaccinated was almost $47.
At first glance it appears that the flu vaccine helps protect you against a bunch of cold viruses as well as influenza. That would be a heck of a flu shot – sign me up. Sadly, it doesn’t.
What it actually means is there are a bunch more cases of flu going around than anybody realizes. And the flu is a much bigger part of what makes us cough in the winter. One would suppose from this data that a third or even a half of our winter respiratory illness is flu based. Who knew?
So maybe you get vaccinated for some noble reason, like saving an elderly person’s life, or trying to keep the kids healthy this winter, or missing less work, or simply to save a buck (or $47) — it all works.
There is plenty of vaccine, and winter is coming, so what are you waiting for?
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing Clinical Occupational Medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.