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Fall 2011

Experts Advise Flu Shots for Nearly Everyone

09/15/2011

VS-Fall11-Flu ShotYearly flu vaccines were once urged only for high-risk groups, but experts today say the preventative shot is now advisable for nearly everyone 6 months and older at the beginning of each flu season.

“We recommend near-universal vaccination against influenza for two reasons,” says Todd Spector, M.D., a family physician at UCLA-Santa Monica Bay Physicians. “The first is to create ‘herd immunity’ and stop the spread of influenza throughout the community. The second is to prevent the serious illness, hospitalizations and even deaths associated with influenza.”

Flu season generally begins in September or October, and an average of 25,000 people die in the United States each year of flu-related complications and more than 200,000 are hospitalized, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Countless others suffer at home, missing days of work or school.

Moreover, notes Dr. Spector, the benefits of the vaccine — prevention of influenza’s most common strains — are accrued with no downside. The flu shot contains a “killed” virus, so unlike certain other types of vaccines, it doesn’t confer immunity by making the recipient sick. “You don’t get influenza from the vaccine,” Dr. Spector says.

“You can still get other viral syndromes, like a cold, or you could get a type of influenza not covered by the vaccine, but you won’t get any of these symptoms from the flu shot itself.” In fact, Dr. Spector says, there are typically no side effects.

While the vaccine is now recommended for everyone, Dr. Spector notes that it is especially important for those at highest risk for serious flu-related complications: the elderly, children under 5, pregnant women and people of any age with chronic medical conditions that contribute to immune or respiratory dysfunction (including diabetes, HIV and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), as well as anyone in close contact with these individuals, such as family members and healthcare workers.

Each year, the vaccine is developed based on what research predicts will be the most common strains of influenza in the coming season. This year’s vaccine will be the same as last year’s, says Zachary Rubin, M.D., an infectious-disease specialist at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. However, Dr. Rubin notes, “Even if you got last year’s shot, you need to get it again.” That’s because the effects of the influenza vaccine wane with time. In fact, for some individuals the immunity lasts only a few months. For that reason, Dr. Rubin recommends that when feasible, patients wait to get their shot until just before the onset of the flu season. The vaccine becomes available in August or September.

In recent years, the nasal-spray vaccine, which is inhaled, has become available as an alternative to the needle vaccine for healthy persons ages 2-49 years of age who are not pregnant. Dr. Rubin notes that studies have found the nasal vaccine to be somewhat more effective than shots in producing protective antibodies for children, but slightly less effective than shots for adults.





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