Why getting the flu shot is still the right thing to do

Dr. Brendan Hanley Just as in baseball, every year, the flu season comes with a new twist. Two years ago we had a bad H1N1 season where many younger, otherwise healthy adults were taken by surprise with some bad cases of influenza. A year ago - in Novem

COMMENTARY

Dr. Brendan Hanley

Just as in baseball, every year, the flu season comes with a new twist.

Two years ago we had a bad H1N1 season where many younger, otherwise healthy adults were taken by surprise with some bad cases of influenza. A year ago – in November – we had an early season start with an intense H3N2 (followed by influenza B) season, affecting more individuals with chronic medical conditions and sending several people to hospital, including some individuals to intensive care.

Our chief defense against influenza remains the flu shot that is offered at this time every year. Since it is our biggest weapon, you might expect something slick, fast, and efficient. Unfortunately though, like an overhyped hitter, we have to face up to the flu shot’s imperfections.

There has been much talk about the disappointing performance of last year’s vaccine, so let’s explore what happened.

The Influenza vaccine is almost exclusively grown in chicken eggs, a process which takes from four to six months to prepare. Because of the lead time necessary to produce vaccines in time for the flu season, the flu scientists have to predict what influenza strains will circulate months ahead. It’s always a best guess based on what viruses are circulating at the time, and sometimes the guess isn’t right on. Strike one.

The other reason is that the influenza virus has a tendency to produce minor genetic variations, known as genetic drift. There was more drift than usual last year. Strike two. In addition, it appears that mutations occurred in the actual virus strain growing in the egg which may have caused the vaccine strain to differ even further from the circulating strain. Strike three.

In short, vaccine and virus did not line up, and as a result the vaccine for influenza A was more or less a strike out – although we did have better results for influenza B.

So where does that leave us? Do we abandon the team in a bad year? I say no. Despite variation in match, it’s always going to be worth getting the flu shot. We don’t know until well after the season how good the match will be. Most of the time we can estimate around 50 per cent effectiveness, sometimes higher, and – as last year – sometimes lower. Although not even in the same ballpark of effectiveness as most of our other vaccines, which are consistently over 90 per cent effective – vaccines like MMR, varicella, pertussis, HPV, and tetanus – 50 per cent is still not bad.

For a few minutes of your time, and at no cost, you can cut your chances of getting influenza in half. In turn, you will protect those people at risk of complications from getting influenza, and that will help to limit the circulation of influenza in the community. So let’s not focus too closely on match results, like some annual baseball score. The real question is whether it is worth your effort to protect yourself and others. Clearly the evidence is yes – its benefits are well worthwhile, and yes, it’s definitely worth the risk. That’s why I’ve had mine and my family will get theirs.

This year we are introducing an exciting new player: the expanded quadrivalent vaccine. This new flu vaccine protects against two A strains and two (instead of a single) B strains, as previously introduced in the children’s FluMist vaccine. This gives it a better punch against whatever of the two more common B strains may hit us in a given year. That is one small step on the way to a better vaccine. Immunization research still has progress to make, but better products are on the horizon, and hopefully in time we will have a better, more effective, more durable vaccine that should even our odds and eliminate the need for the annual flu vaccine update.

Seasonal influenza vaccine clinics started this year the week of Oct. 26.

As a reminder, I recommend flu vaccine to anyone over the age of six months, but particularly those who are at higher risk of influenza related complications, those who work in health, and those who live with any of the above.

The influenza vaccine is far from perfect, but it is very safe and might be the best thing you can take to protect those around you – whether elders, pregnant women, young children, or those with underlying medical conditions – from what can be a very serious disease.

Do your part for yourself and your team – step up to the plate and get your flu shot this season, and every season to come.

Dr. Brendan Hanley is Yukon’s chief medical officer of health.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Liberal leader Sandy Silver speaks outside his campaign headquarters in Dawson City following early poll results on April 12. (Robin Sharp/Yukon News)
UPDATED: Minority government results will wait on tie vote in Vuntut Gwitchin

The Yukon Party and the Liberal Party currently have secured the same amount of seats

Dawson the dog sits next to the Chariot Patrick Jackson has loaded and rigged up to walk the Dempster Highway from where it begins, off the North Klondike Highway, to the Arctic Circle. (Submitted)
Walking the Dempster

Patrick Jackson gets set for 405-kilometre journey

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
YUKONOMIST: The Neapolitan election

Do you remember those old bricks of Neapolitan ice cream from birthday… Continue reading

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Exposure notice issued for April 3 Air North flight

Yukon Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley has issued another… Continue reading

Emily Tredger at NDP election night headquarters after winning the Whitehorse Centre riding. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Emily Tredger takes Whitehorse Centre for NDP

MLA-elect ready to get to work in new role

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Two new cases of COVID-19 variant identified in territory

“If variants were to get out of control in the Yukon, the impact could be serious.”

lwtters
Today’s Mailbox: Rent freezes and the youth vote

Dear Editor, I read the article regarding the recommendations by the Yukon… Continue reading

Point-in-Time homeless count planned this month

Volunteers will count those in shelters, short-term housing and without shelter in a 24-hour period.

The Yukon’s new ATIPP Act came into effect on April 1. Yukoners can submit ATIPP requests online or at the Legislative Assembly building. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News file)
New ATIPP Act in effect as of April 1

The changes promise increased government transparency

A new conservancy in northern B.C. is adjacent to Mount Edziza Provincial Park. (Courtesy BC Parks)
Ice Mountain Lands near Telegraph Creek, B.C., granted conservancy protection

The conservancy is the first step in a multi-year Tahltan Stewardship Initiative

Yukon RCMP reported a child pornography-related arrest on April 1. (Phil McLachlan/Black Press file)
Whitehorse man arrested on child pornography charges

The 43-year-old was charged with possession of child pornography and making child pornography

Most Read