“I never get the “flu”. I often hear that from patients, colleagues and friends. After awhile the public seems to ignore news about the “flu”. When reports first came out of Mexico about the “swine flu” in 2012 (more accurately called H1N1) and the number of cases mounted and the World Health Organization issued reports about the potential for a world-wide outbreak (pandemic), the media issued reports every day which caused a great deal of concern in the US and Canada.
However, as it became clear that for most people who contracted H1N1 infections, the cases were mild, there seemed to be a sense of boredom on the part of the public about the risks entailed in this “flu” outbreak. The excessive media focus on the outbreak may have done an inadvertent disservice to public health officials who were trying to prepare the public for the upcoming “flu” season. The fact is, it’s important to get a flu shot each year to ward off illness for aging parents and yourself and family.
Personal History of “Asian Flu”
As a teenager growing up in Brooklyn I contracted the Asian “flu”. I recall how terribly ill I was, being bed bound for a week with high fevers and excruciating muscle pains. The Asian influenza outbreak of 1957-1958 was followed years later by the Hong Kong outbreak of 1968-69. In both outbreaks it is estimated that hundreds of thousands if not more people succumbed to the illness directly or indirectly due to underlying chronic illnesses worsened by the infection. This was especially the case in the senior population.
One problem with the public’s recognition of the potential seriousness of such outbreaks is that we have tended to use the term “flu” for a disease which rightfully should be called influenza. The term “flu” is used almost dismissively for almost any type of viral infections, many of which are minor in nature and have nothing to do with influenza. Sometimes health care professionals will describe non-specific illnesses with fever and respiratory symptoms as the “flu”. Since these illnesses are usually not serious, the whole idea about the potential catastrophic nature of true influenza is lost. Telling people to get the “flu shot” even when used by public health officials may be perpetuating the false sense of security about influenza being relatively innocuous.
People who refuse the vaccine often justify their decision with, “I never get ‘the flu’ or last year I got the ‘needle’ and got ‘the flu’ anyway so what good did it do?” Then there is always the story about someone they knew or heard about who got the ‘flu shot’ and got sick or died or was paralyzed or some other perceived and often unsubstantiated disaster. Most of these stories are erroneous and part of the well-known tendency to propagate myth as if it is fact, especially when it is self- serving.
What to do?
The first and most important point for you, your parents and health care professionals to understand is that characterizing influenza as “the flu”, especially when it is preceded by the phrase “it’s just” is very misleading. Influenza can be a very serious and potentially lethal disease. The influenza outbreak of 1918 following the First World War killed more people than that terrible war itself. According to the website of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US): For everyone, getting vaccinated each year provides the best protection against influenza throughout flu season. It’s important to get a flu vaccine every year, even if you got vaccinated the season before and the viruses in the vaccine have not changed for the current season.
Historical Perspective Should Inform Us
The development of influenza vaccine during the Second World War and its improvements subsequently has been one of the great advances in medicine. We have been very fortunate in the United States and Canada in that the vaccine is readily available to the population and in some jurisdictions it is available without cost to everyone. Manufactures are trying to include a fourth strain of influenza into the 2013-2014 vaccine repertoire so that we can decrease its risk on our population. So remember, “it’s not the ‘flu’ – it’s influenza’- get the ‘shot’ and encourage everyone in your family, especially aging parents to do the same.