Know your enemy
Have you ever wondered why it is so easy for us to keep getting the flu? And why it can be hard to get rid of?
This is because the flu virus keeps changing.
First, let’s take a look at how your body fights diseases. Germs, viruses and other disease-causing organisms usually have structures on their cells called antigens. These antigens are recognized by the cells of your immune system, marking the disease-causing organisms as enemies that need to be eliminated quickly. However, your immune system usually needs to first come in contact with a disease-causing organism to recognize its antigen. This is why, usually, it is harder for us to get a repeat infection.
The flu virus, however, can experience changes in its genetic materials, causing the antigens it express on its surface to be different from the ones carried by flu viruses of the previous season. Therefore, when this flu virus attacks our body, our immune system fails to recognise it as the enemy and does not attack immediately. So, we succumb to the flu.
Also, complicating the matter is that there are two main types of flu viruses – Influenza A and Influenza B – and there are many variations under each type.Different types and strains could be circulating every flu season.
The flu vaccine: It’s your best shot against the flu!
The flu vaccine contains inactivated flu virus, which will trigger our immune system to recognize the antigens on its surface as ones belonging to the enemy. However, because the flu virus is not active, it will not cause the flu. Think of the flu vaccine as a ‘training session’ for the ‘soldiers’ in our immune system!
The World Health Organization works closely with many health centers all over the world to collect data and identify current circulating flu viruses. Before the next flu season begins, health experts will come together to determine the type of flu vaccine that should be manufactured for the upcoming flu season.3
Therefore, each year, when you get a flu shot, the vaccine is always from a new batch, manufactured based on the health experts’ recommendation. It is designed to work against the anticipated types of flu virus in that particular season.
It is worth noting that the flu vaccine may not offer 100% protection. Each batch of flu vaccine is manufactured in anticipation of the type of flu virus that will be circulating in the coming flu season. There is a possibility that the flu vaccine and the flu virus of that season may not be a perfect match. Age may also play a factor – older people may not respond to the vaccine as well as younger people. Still, as long as you’ve had the flu vaccine, even if you do get the flu, it would most likely be a milder form.Therefore, the flu vaccine is still worth getting, all things considered!
Sounds good. What kind of vaccine should I get?
There are two types of vaccine at the moment. The trivalent vaccine, which has been around for a while now, protects you against 2 types of Influenza A viruses and 1 type of Influenza B virus. The newer quadrivalent vaccine protects against 2 types of Influenza A viruses and 2 types of Influenza B viruses. It costs a bit more than the trivalent vaccine, but it offers a greater amount of protection.
Do I need the vaccine? I’m generally healthy and I can ‘survive’ a flu attack or two.
Perhaps, but flu medication is not cheap these days – what you spent on getting the vaccine may end up cheaper than what you will spend on medication. Furthermore, your life will not be disrupted and, who knows, your boss may look favorably at you for working like a trooper while your colleagues have to take MC one by one!
But there is another, probably more important, benefit to getting the vaccine: it protects your loved ones, especially those considered ‘high risk’. Generally, the weaker one’s immune system is, the more one is at risk of complications caused by flu. People of the following groups are especially vulnerable:
- Children younger than 5, but especially children younger than 2 years old.
- Adults 65 years of age and older.
- Pregnant women (and women up to 2 weeks after giving birth).
- Residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
People with chronic medical conditions such as heart, lung, kidney, liver, blood or metabolic diseases (such as diabetes), or weakened immune systems.
A flu infection can cause pneumonia or worsen any existing medical condition in these groups of people, and in some cases, the complications may lead to death.
According to the World Health Organization, the flu affects about 5%-10% of adults and 20%-30% of children worldwide every year, with about 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness, and about 250,000 to 500,000 deaths.6 As you can see, flu is not a trivial matter – it can be deadly and we should take its threat on our health seriously!
Given how easily the flu virus spreads from one person to another, the flu vaccine, when given to them as well as the people around them (family members, staff, etc), offers the best protection against health complications caused by flu.
I hear there are side effects…
Most vaccines have the potential to cause side effects. The flu vaccine has been known to cause the following side effects:
- Soreness, redness, itching or swelling at the spot where the shot was administered.
- Low-grade fever.
- Body aches.
These side effects are generally mild and temporary.
There is also a very rare possibility of serious allergic reaction caused by the ingredients in the vaccine. Therefore, if you are allergic to egg, gelatin or any other medication, tell your doctor so that he or she can determine whether it is safe for you to get the vaccine.
Can’t I just avoid getting the flu?
Unfortunately, “avoiding the flu virus” is easier said than done.
The flu virus spreads very easily and quickly. All it takes is for an infected person to sneeze, cough or even talk within 2 meters (6 feet) from you. The droplets released into the air will pass the flu virus to you when you breathe them in.
Flu may also spread through contact with an infected person or with an object or surface that has recently come in contact with the person.9
There are ways to cut down your risk of catching the flu virus – avoiding contact with infected people, washing your hands with soap and water regularly, etc.
Realistically, though, it is not easy to avoid the flu virus, which is why many people are resigned to catching it every year.
Don’t bank on luck to keep you away from the virus. The flu vaccine is a more reliable form of protection – bank on it instead!
But I am scared of needles …
You are not the only one, don’t worry. Here are some tips that you can try to keep calm when you are getting your flu shot.
- While waiting to get your shot, distract yourself with a magazine, book, your phone or conversations with the people next to you.
- Tell your doctor or the nurse administering the shot that you are scared of needles. They will do their best to comfort and reassure you while minimising any discomfort you may feel.
- You can also bring a family member or friend with you for support.
Times are hard, and I should prioritize spending my money on more important things …
Health is important, and in the case of the flu vaccine, getting one is not that expensive. As you can see from the ‘Let’s get personal’ account, sometimes we do not know how important good health is until we face the repercussions of taking our good health for granted.
Let’s get personal.
Like most people, this writer never gives flu much serious consideration. “Flu? Well, I can just ‘man up’ and take it!” he thought, until he caught a really bad flu prior to writing this article. More sobering was how his usually healthy 5-year-old niece caught the H1N1 flu virus and ended up in hospital. No one knew how she caught it, but the H1N1 virus could have been easily safeguarded against with a flu shot. So, no more ‘forgetting’ to get a flu shot every year – he and everyone in his family would be getting one from now on!
Well, it looks like I should be getting the flu vaccine after all!
And you should, good for you!
 US Department of Health and Human Services. How the flu virus changes. Retrieved on February 23, 2016 from http://www.flu.gov/about_the_flu/virus_changes/
 Medline Plus. Immune response. Retrieved on February 23, 2016 from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000821.htm
 US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Types of Influenza Viruses. Retrieved from February 23, 2016 from http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/viruses/types.htm
 US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What are the benefits of flu vaccination? Retrieved on February 23, 2016 from http://www.cdc.gov/flu/pdf/freeresources/general/flu-vaccine-benefits.pdf
 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Influenza (flu). Retrieved on February 23, 2016 from http://www.vaccines.gov/diseases/flu/
 World Health Organization. Influenza (seasonal). Retrieved on February 23, 2016 from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs211/en/
 US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Key facts about seasonal flu vaccine. Retrieved from February 23, 2016 from http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/keyfacts.htm
 US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaccination: who should do it, who should not and who should take precautions. Retrieved on February 23, 2016 from http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/whoshouldvax.htm
 US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How flu spreads. Retrieved on February 23, 2016 from http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/disease/spread.htm
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