Why get a flu vaccine?
Influenza vaccines — or flu shots, as they are often called — dramatically lower your risk of getting influenza. Each year, 5 - 20% of Americans catch the flu. A flu vaccine reduces that number dramatically.
How effective is the flu vaccine?
The flu vaccine changes year-to-year, and researchers cannot necessarily predict how effective each year’s vaccine will be. But in general, flu vaccines can reduce a person’s risk of getting the flu by 40 to 60%. This is a significant amount! And even when a vaccinated person gets the flu, their symptoms are much milder.
What is the flu?
The flu is a viral illness. Flu symptoms include
● Chills and sweats
● Aching muscles
● A dry cough
● Sore throat
Although the symptoms may be similar to the common cold, the flu is far worse. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that during the 2017-2018 flu season, between 12,000 and 56,000 people died of the flu or flu-related complications. 710,000 people in the United States were hospitalized because of flu.
Children, the elderly, and the immunocompromised are especially vulnerable to the flu. But the vaccine really does work. In the 2017-2018 flu season, 185 children died of the flu. Four in five of those children — 80% —were unvaccinated.
Why do I have to get a flu vaccine each year?
Like all infectious diseases, influenza is ever-evolving. But unlike many infectious diseases, the flu evolves fast. Each year, scientists and physicians redesign the flu shot for that year’s flu. This means that each flu shot only protects a patient for that year’s flu season. By contrast, a measles shot protects someone for life. Because of this, a yearly flu shot is critical.
A shot that protects your community
The flu shot isn’t just for the patient—it protects everyone around them! From a baby on the bus to a colleague with an immune system disorder, a flu shot is for the entire community.
Not everyone can get flu shots. Babies younger than six months, people with certain immune system disorders, and people with severe allergies to ingredients in the flu shot cannot get vaccinated. But if people around them are vaccinated against the flu, they are far less likely to come in contact with the flu vaccine. This is known as herd immunity.
When and where can someone get the flu shot?
The flu season lasts all winter, and the CDC supports getting a flu shot as late as January. Doctor’s offices offer the flu shot, as do many health centers, pharmacies, and college campuses. Many employers even offer the flu shot to their employees.
Furthermore, the flu shot is very affordable! Many pharmacies or health centers offer free or low-cost flu shots, and under the Affordable Care Act, insurers are required to cover the cost of a flu shot without charging a co-pay.
Protect yourself and your community. Get a flu shot!
A look at the first vaccine
The first-ever vaccine was developed in the late 1700s, and protected against smallpox. But the true story of vaccination begins far earlier.
During the tenth century, physicians in China created the ancestor of the smallpox vaccine. They ground smallpox scabs into a fine powder, and blew the powder into the noses of healthy people. Patients who received this treatment, now known as variolation, were partially protected against smallpox. When variolated patients contracted smallpox, 1% to 2% of them died. Among unvariolated patients, smallpox had a 30% fatality rate.
Western physicians dismissed variolation as folklore until 1714, when Italian physician Dr. Emmanuel Timoni published a paper on it. Even after that paper, variolation may not have caught on were it not for English aristocrat Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. She had lost her brother to smallpox, and had suffered from smallpox herself. When Lady Montagu came across Dr. Timoni’s paper, she insisted that her two young children be variolated. After that, variolation in various forms became widespread across Europe.
Yet some variolated patients still died of smallpox. And variolation itself could even cause smallpox infections. Clearly, something better was necessary. That “something better” came about in the late 1700s, when physician Edward Jenner developed the first vaccine. The vaccine arose from a simple observation: milkmaids, who frequently caught the mild disease cowpox, evaded smallpox.
Dr. Jenner theorized that cowpox somehow conferred immunity to smallpox. Testing this hypothesis, Dr. Jenner, who himself was variolated as a child, discovered he was right. By exposing people to cowpox, he could protect them against smallpox. From this, he developed the smallpox vaccine. We now know that this works because the cowpox virus is biologically very similar to the smallpox virus. Exposure to cowpox taught patients’ immune systems to defeat both cowpox and smallpox.
In 1980, the World Health Organization declared that smallpox, which is thought to date back to the 3rd century BCE, was eradicated. It remains the only infectious disease to ever be fully eradicated — a testament to the power of vaccines.