Health experts: Myths spark fear of flu shot
There are countless myths about the flu vaccine, but among the most entrenched is this:
The flu shot gives people the flu.
"The flu vaccine is not able to transmit the flu," said Dr. Joan Facelle, Rockland County's commissioner of health. "I think it's important that people understand that."
County boards of health and local physicians are working to dispel that and other myths in an effort to vaccinate as many people as possible -- as early in the season as possible.
"Vaccination is one of the single most important things one can do to protect themselves from getting the flu," said Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Especially individuals who are at high risk from the serious consequences from the flu -- children, the elderly, people with underlying health conditions. We want to make sure they get vaccinated."
The CDC recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months get a flu shot -- either in injectable or nasal form -- annually.
The flu is caused by the influenza virus, which can be spread by coughing, sneezing or nasal secretions. Symptoms include fever and chills, sore throat, muscle aches, fatigue, cough, runny or stuffy nose and headaches. It's a virus that causes thousands of deaths nationally and hospitalizes even more, according to the CDC.
As the influenza virus mutates each year, so does the vaccine. This year's vaccine includes the influenza A H1N1 virus, better known as swine flu; the influenza A H3N2 virus; and an influenza B virus -- strains that experts predict will be the most common this year. Simply put, last year's shot is not enough to protect against the flu this year, Skinner said.
And don't try to predict anything based on the previous winter.
"You never know what kind of flu season you are going to see," said Dr. Adam Lerche, a pediatrician at Bardonia Pediatrics in Bardonia. "Just because you had a mild year one year doesn't mean it'll be the same the next year."
Children are especially vulnerable to the flu -- particularly those who are asthmatic or have cystic fibrosis or other chronic respiratory disorders -- and can develop complications, such as secondary pneumonia or dehydration, Dr. Lerche said. That's why he encourages all of his young patients to get their flu shots this time of year.
In many ways, schools are ground zero for the flu, said Kathy Percacciolo, supervising public health nurse for the nursing department at the Putnam County Department of Health. Children are often the carriers and spreaders of flu, so two years ago, the county Department of Health established a school-based vaccine initiative to vaccinate Putnam's youngsters and school staff during school hours, free of charge.
It's a way to keep children and their parents healthy all year long.
"If you get hit with the flu, you're down for the count," she said. "You could lose a good week to 10 days' worth of work. And if people go to work sick, they are going to give it to other people around them. By getting vaccinated, you are saving work dollars, you are saving time and you are also saving medical costs."
Although the flu season typically doesn't begin until October, experts are encouraging everyone to get a shot now since it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to become effective.
Physicians and many local pharmacies are offering flu shots, and both Rockland and Putnam county health departments offer flu clinics. Last year, Rockland County's flu clinic vaccinated 2,124 people and distributed about 2,200 additional doses to community agencies, and Putnam's clinic and school-based initiative vaccinated nearly 4,000 people. Officials hope to at least match those numbers, if not surpass them.
Part of doing just that is dispelling the flu vaccine myths.
For example, an allergy to eggs does not immediately disqualify someone from getting the flu vaccine, experts said.
And the flu shot does not cause the flu. The flu shot contains an inactive virus, which tricks the immune system into thinking that it's the flu. All the while, however, the body is actually building up the antibodies to protect against the virus. The same is true of the nasal sprays, though that contains a live but weakened flu virus.
While the body is building up the antibodies, people may develop mild flulike symptoms, experts said, but it should go away within a day or two. They may also develop temporary soreness at the site of the injection.