Every year around this time, everyone from public officials to health journalists start talking about flu shots. It seems that flu shots are recommended for just about everyone these days, but are they truly beneficial? The Centers for Disease Control and other respected health organizations are strong proponents of flu shots, but conflicting opinions exist among researchers. I’ve looked at the evidence in order to present you with a balanced view of the issue.
What a Flu Shot Does
There are actually two forms of flu vaccinations-the traditional shot and a nasal spray. The shot contains dead flu viruses, which encourage your body to produce the antibodies to ward off live viruses that you may come in contact with. The nasal spray contains weak flu viruses, which prompts an immune response throughout your body. You will not actually get the flu, but may it be possible to pass the virus onto others. Pregnant women and people with chronic illnesses or compromised immune systems are encouraged to get the flu shot, but are not eligible for the spray.
The reason yearly flu shots are required is that different strains of the flu virus become dominant each flu season. Your vaccine from last year may be ineffective against the strains of flu virus currently circulating. Scientists determine which strains are strongest for a given year and formulate the flu vaccine accordingly.
The Conventional Wisdom
The Centers for Disease Control affirms that yearly vaccinations are the best way to prevent contracting a virus. According to their data, the vaccine is effective 70 to 90 percent of the time for healthy people younger than 65. These can be less effective in older people because they tend to produce fewer antibodies in response to the vaccine.
Still, getting the flu shot is better than not getting it, according to recommendations from the Mayo Clinic. For older adults who don’t live in a nursing home (where viruses can be easily passed among residents), the vaccination is estimated to be 30 to 70 percent effective at preventing flu-related hospitalizations. What’s also very important to note is that it prevents complications from flu, such as pneumonia, which is a major hazard to older people.
The flu vaccine is recommended for people aged 6 months to 19 years, and 50 and over. It is recommended for anyone with a chronic condition or a weakened immune system. Because of the prevalence of viruses in nursing homes, residents are encouraged to get the flu vaccine. Pregnant women and health care workers are also encouraged to do so.
You should not get a flu shot if you’ve had these conditions in the past; prior allergic reaction to vaccines, an allergy to eggs; experienced Guillaim-Barre, an autoimmune syndrome, or who have a fever (It’s best to wait until a fever subsides).
Perhaps the strongest argument against flu shots is that they may not prevent you from contracting flu. Italian researchers reviewed 71 studies on the efficacy of the vaccine and found it to be only 45 percent effective at preventing flu, hospitalizations and flu-related deaths. It is difficult to develop a highly effective vaccine year after year due to the constant adaptations of the virus. Some years’ vaccines have better success rates than others.
One argument is that getting yearly flu shots makes the immune system less able to fight a strain of the virus that may not be covered by the vaccine. However, even some skeptics agree that flu shots are valuable for staving off complications in elderly people who are stricken with the flu. Evidence also points to benefits of vaccinating children who are often the most likely to spread viruses to older people in their household.
Ultimately, the decision to get a flu shot or not is up to you. Weigh your individual health needs and do not hesitate to discuss the question with your doctor. As with so many questions in life, the answer is neither black nor white-I hope my straightforward analysis can help you navigate the grey area.