The COVID-19 pandemic is currently dominating the news, with much excitement about the progress in developing a vaccine to help control the spread of this infection. In addition to the coronavirus, this is the time of year when influenza viruses begin to circulate in our region. This year there is significant concern about what will happen if a patient gets infected with both influenza and COVID-19 at the same time. Many of us have experienced the influenza virus at some point in time and realize how miserable that can be. Imagine getting infected with influenza and, while trying to fight that off, being infected with COVID-19 at the same time. Obviously, coinfections could be much more devastating!
Every winter, influenza viruses circulate throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Influenza is a highly contagious illness that is spread through contact with microscopic water particles in the air. The typical symptoms are:
- Abrupt onset of high fever
- Body aches
- Sore throat
- Vomiting, in some cases
Unfortunately, every year there are many people with influenza who become extremely ill. Some need to be on breathing machines to support their failing lungs. Last year (even before COVID-19), 188 pediatric patients died in the United States. The majority were previously healthy children who were not fully immunized. Imagine a family’s devastation when a healthy child dies from a disease that could have possibly been prevented. The elderly are hit even harder. Typically, 20,000-50,000 elderly die of influenza each year.
Some years influenza is more severe than others. The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was especially deadly (~ 50 million people died). Thankfully, there is now a vaccine that is clearly helpful in reducing the severity of the illness. While the vaccine isn’t guaranteed to prevent all influenza infections, it definitely reduces the severity of the disease.
The nickname, “flu”, is often used to refer to several different diseases. The “stomach flu” is a virus that gets into the intestines, causing vomiting and diarrhea, whereas “Influenza” is a respiratory infection. The “flu shot”, or more precisely, the “influenza vaccination” will not prevent the stomach flu, nor will it prevent common colds or other types of illness. However, the influenza vaccine will clearly help reduce the severity of influenza infections. Not only does the immunization help the one receiving it, but it also helps reduce the amount of influenza circulating in the community, thereby helping all those around as well. You never know if someone around you has a weakened immune system and would be more susceptible to complications. Wouldn’t you hate to pass the influenza virus to a frail grandparent?
We strongly encourage everyone 6 months and older who are eligible to get vaccinated. Obviously, we wish the vaccine were perfect. Some who receive the vaccine may still become infected with influenza, but it clearly reduces the severity of the illness and the risk of hospitalization and death. Two recent studies analyzing data from the past 5 years, demonstrate that the influenza vaccine reduces the risk of hospitalization and death nearly in half for pediatric patients, not to mention reducing the risk to others in your home and community. So please, get vaccinated.