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Tennessee Department of Health officials say too many people get sick or die from influenza every year due to avoiding vaccination because of myths and misbeliefs. The two most common rumors are that getting immunized will give you the flu and that influenza vaccines aren’t effective.
“We cannot get the flu from getting the flu vaccine and getting immunized is the best way to protect yourself and others from this very serious illness. With more than half of Tennesseans getting vaccinated last year, I am grateful most of us now understand these simple truths,” said TDH Commissioner John Dreyzehner, MD, MPH. “Those who still believe otherwise or spread misinformation are unfortunately putting themselves and others at greater risk for serious health complications from influenza, including death.”
Kelly Moore, MD, MPH, director of the Tennessee Immunization Program, has spent years studying the cause and impact of influenza. She said misbeliefs about flu shots “prevent many from benefiting from the protection they provide, putting them at risk of potentially serious illness.”
“The rumor we hear most – that getting immunized will give you the flu – probably began for a couple of reasons,” she said. “First, it takes up to two weeks after the vaccine is given before you are protected, so it’s possible for someone to get the flu before the vaccine can start offering protection. Although some vaccinated people will still come down with influenza naturally despite vaccination, at this time of year, many others may think they had the flu when they had a flu-like illness caused by something else.”
Moore said the flu vaccine administered through shots does not contain anything living, so it’s impossible for it to cause the flu. The nasal spray alternative, approved for healthy young people as long as they are not pregnant, works using a modified virus that also does not cause influenza.
She said the second rumor, that vaccines offer little protection, is also wrong. She said the effectiveness of the vaccines varies from year to year and from person to person, based on the circulating viruses and the health and immune system of the person being vaccinated.
“It’s true vaccines can be more effective some years than others,” Moore said. “But among healthy young people, the odds of getting the flu can be cut in half or better. More importantly, people who are not vaccinated are completely unprotected and at greater risk of influenza illness and its complications, compared to people who are vaccinated. I encourage everyone to consider this: If your doctor told you he or she could give you a shot that would reduce your chances of getting cancer by half, would you want it? Most of us would. We need to think of flu shots that way. The CDC recently reported that, just last season, over six million influenza infections and about 80,000 hospitalizations were prevented among the millions of people who were vaccinated.”
Some other information about the flu the Tennessee Department of Health wants you to know:
Most people with egg allergies can still be immunized. Flu vaccines do have very small amounts of egg protein but routine vaccination is now recognized as safe for people with mild egg allergies, such as hives. Those with egg allergy should discuss vaccination options with their doctor.
You need to be immunized every year. The protection from the flu shot or nasal spray diminishes over time, and because the flu strains may vary from year to year, the vaccine is updated annually. This year’s flu vaccine appears to be a good match for the strains that are circulating.
The flu is not just a severe cold. It has the potential to cause life-threatening illness in people of any age, sometimes very quickly.
Antiviral medications are available and can make influenza illness less severe, if started within 48 hours. Rapid treatment is especially important for pregnant women and others at high risk of complications from flu illness, including the elderly and people with chronic health problems such as heart or lung disease. Your healthcare provider can evaluate the need for treatment; if prescribed, take these medications as directed.
People who have not yet been immunized should do so as quickly as possible since the flu is expected to continue circulating in Tennessee for the next several weeks, possibly into the spring. Many health departments across Tennessee are now offering flu immunization at no charge for most patients. The immunizations are limited to available supplies and will be provided on a first-come, first-served basis. TDH officials suggest calling your local health department before visiting to ensure vaccine is still available.