As influenza season rolls into its fourth month, we at Eugene Pediatric Associates are working hard to get the children in our practice vaccinated.
During the third week of December, about 4 percent of visits to the emergency room were for flu-like symptoms, and a little over a third of those patients tested positive for influenza, according to the Oregon Health Authority. During the same week, 123 people in Oregon were hospitalized with influenza—so far, no deaths have been reported in our state.
In 1918, medicine was vastly different than today. The “germ theory” of disease was slowly replacing the idea that illnesses were caused by miasmas, or “bad air,” and bloodletting was widely employed. Antibiotics did not exist, and children routinely died of scarlet fever (strep throat) or whooping cough.
At the same time, one of the lesser-feared illnesses, influenza (or “La gripe”) caused a severe pandemic that killed over one-fifth of the world’s population. Imagine the Ebola virus moving across the country in waves, leaving death and devastation in its wake. This is what influenza did in 1918. Victims of this deadly virus died rapidly. In addition to the usual vulnerable populations of the elderly and very young, a large number of healthy adults died, likely because they lacked immunity to this deadly strain of “Spanish Flu.” To this day, we don’t fully know why this flu was so deadly, nor if as lethal a strain is likely to reoccur.
Influenza is different from most other viruses because it is constantly changing. Two proteins on the outer surface of the virus, neuraminidase and hemagglutinin, are continually restructured, which is why we don’t have a single, permanent vaccine for the virus.
Each year, the influenza vaccine is altered to match what is predicted to be the current year’s circulating strain of virus. It is a bit of a medical game of chess—vaccine creators vs. the virus—each trying to stay one step ahead of each other.
Today’s flu shot misconceptions
It’s a pity that the flu shot is one of the less popular vaccines. The CDC estimates that influenza kills an average of 34,000 people and more than 200,000 are hospitalized, yet people don’t worry much about the flu. Some people decline the vaccine, because they believe they will catch the flu from the shot, but that’s a fallacy. After the influenza virus is grown, it is then killed/inactivated, so it is no longer alive and cannot cause any sort of infection.
Some think it is OK to skip the vaccine because they have heard that the current vaccine does not match the circulating strains and, thus, would be ineffective. Unfortunately, we really don’t know how good the match is until after the fact, when the data about circulating viral strains can be reviewed.
Don’t wait, vaccinate
The most compelling reason to vaccinate has as much to do with protecting your own health as it does with safeguarding your healthy 6-year-old or his or her classmate who is getting chemotherapy for leukemia, or the newborn baby cousin that they love to cuddle, or Great Grandma when they sit on her lap. Vaccinations protect more than just the child or adult receiving the shot.
Please contact us at Eugene Pediatrics to schedule a flu shot for your child. And be sure to get one for yourself, too. It’s not too late, and it can help protect your family and our community.