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November 4, 2012 at 8:00 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

The Flu and Pneumonia Vaccines: Setting the Record Straight

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

In my work, misconceptions are opportunities for education. During fall, I routinely encounter such challenges as I recommend flu and pneumonia vaccines. This blog will highlight some misconceptions about these immunizations and work toward setting the record straight.

What Immunizations Do

Influenza infection caused by person-to-person contact via respiratory droplets (sneezing, mucous, counter tops, doorhandles, not washing hands, etc). can be deadly for susceptible populations like the elderly, young children, or persons with chronic disease. It can be deadly even for healthy people too, though it more typically causes symptoms of fever, cough, and severe muscle pain (feeling like you were hit by a truck) which  generally last for a couple weeks.

The vaccine helps give the body protection against the bacteria pneumococcus - the most common cause of bacterial pneumonia in the elderly and susceptible groups. Given the frequency of infection, the life-threatening nature of the illness it creates, and the increasing rates of resistance to antibiotics, prevention is a better idea than treatment after infection!

The pneumonia vaccine is recommended for persons over the age of 65 and those with an illness that makes them prone to pneumonia, including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic cigarette smoking, diabetes and asplenia (no spleen). For those who get the vaccine before the age of 65, a booster is needed in five years. After the age of 65, only one shot is needed.
The flu vaccine protects against the influenza virus. It is basically recommended for everyone over six months of age.

Why Do I Need it Every Year?

Because influenza comes seasonally in the winter/spring and the virus can mutate and change from year to year, the immunization must be reformulated  and redistributed each year to be effective.

One of two types of mutation can occur: a drift or a shift. With a shift, the mutation is more predictable and subtle. This is the more common scenario and the target is more easily hit with the vaccine. With a drift, the mutation is more significant, which leads to more widespread illness due to the potentially lesser effective vaccine and decreased immunity of the population.  This has happened a few times in history, and the results have been devastating. In the the flu pandemic of 1918, the death toll was over 20 million worldwide by conservative estimates. Yes, this infection can be serious.

Scientists study the historical trends and make a prediction as to the best formulation of the vaccine.

Can Vaccines Make You Sick?

As with any vaccine, the flu vaccine causes an immune reaction in the body in order to build up that immunity. The vaccine introduced into the body creates a job order for the immune system.  This can tax the system a bit, but, in truth, nearly everybody does fine. The misfortune is that the flu vaccine is given at the peak of the "sick season" when respiratory illnesses abound - guilty by association.

The truth is that the influenza vaccine can save lives. On a lesser scale, many appreciate the influenza vaccine as a means to prevent an illness that can cause weeks of missed work and that "feeling like you got hit by a truck" experience.

What Immunizations Will NOT Do

The pneumonia vaccine will not prevent all pneumonia. By definition, pneumonia is any infection in the tissue of the lungs. There are many things that can cause infections in the lungs - numerous different bacteria, viruses, and even fungi.  The vaccine only prevents pneumococcal pneumonia (one of the more common types). If you get the pneumonia shot, but still get pneumonia, it's not the fault of the vaccine not working. Rather, you just got one of the many other causes of a lung infection.
"The flu" has been a catch-all word for a multitude of different illnesses. As such, it has become presumed that the influenza vaccine protects against all these "bugs." The "stomach flu" and various other cold viruses are not caused by influenza. Therefore, the influenza vaccine will not prevent these various scourges.

Should you get these vaccines?

Ben Franklin said it best: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." It's a universal sentiment in my experience that those suffering from pneumococcal pneumonia and influenza wish that they had been vaccinated.

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