You don't want the flu, so get the new vaccine for seniors
October 1, 2020
What a relief! An article about health that isn’t about the pandemic and COVID-19. That’s the good news. On the other hand, this is about seasonal influenza, “the flu.” The flu season is fall and winter, right now.
Flu shots help prevent people from catching the flu in the first place, or at least make flu symptoms less severe if we do come down with it. Turns out there is good reason to want to avoid the flu because it can be nasty and dangerous, especially for older persons. People who are sick with flu often feel some or all of these symptoms:
fever or feeling feverish/chills
runny or stuffy nose
muscle or body aches
vomiting and diarrhea
Ugh. Very unpleasant. Most people who come down with the flu recover in a few days, or might take as long as a couple of weeks, but some people develop complications that are life-threatening or fatal. On the less serious side of the complications spectrum are sinus and ear infections. On the more serious side of the spectrum, the possible complications are much more frightening. According to the CDC:
“...pneumonia is a serious flu complication that can result from either influenza virus infection alone or from co-infection of flu virus and bacteria. Other possible serious complications triggered by flu can include inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), brain (encephalitis) or muscle (myositis, rhabdomyolysis) tissues, and multi-organ failure (for example, respiratory and kidney failure). Flu virus infection of the respiratory tract can trigger an extreme inflammatory response in the body and can lead to sepsis, the body’s life-threatening response to infection. Flu also can make chronic medical problems worse. For example, people with asthma may experience asthma attacks while they have flu, and people with chronic heart disease may experience a worsening of this condition triggered by flu.”
But for us, here is the important part:
“People 65 years and older are at high risk of developing serious complications from flu compared with young, healthy adults. This is partly because human immune defenses become weaker with increasing age. ... In the United States, between about 70 percent and 85 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths, and between 50 percent and 70 percent of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations have occurred among people 65 years and older. The weakened immune system can also mean that older people don’t respond as well to flu vaccination.”
Since 2010, in the United States there have been between 9 million and 45 million cases of the flu per year; between 140,000 and 810,000 hospitalizations per year due to flu; and between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths per year from the flu. That is a lot of illness and death across the nation, and we older persons are over-represented.
OK, just a little more unpleasant but really important news, and then the good news. The big zinger for this flu season, 2020-2021, is that we are going to have COVID-19 and seasonal influenza spreading together. This is bad news for two reasons. The first is that some people will catch both at the same time, with the potential for a disastrous health outcome. But it is the second issue that really keeps CDC scientists up at night. As fall progresses into winter and the flu season ramps up as it does every year, the rate of COVID-19 infections may continue to expand. The two raging infectious diseases together could easily overwhelm hospitals across the United States in a crisis unprecedented in modern history.
Finally, here is pretty darn good news: widely available stronger vaccines for older persons have been proven to be more effective. Research cosponsored by the CDC was published late last year in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. It provided good evidence that specially-formulated flu vaccines probably offer people 65 years and older better protection than standard-dose flu vaccines. These include:
a high-dose 3-component flu vaccine that contains four times the amount of antigen compared to a regular-dose flu vaccine;
a 3-component flu vaccine that contains a specially formulated adjuvant, which is an ingredient to boost antibody response to vaccination, and;
a 4-component recombinant hemagglutinin (HA) vaccine that involves cell-based rather than egg-based production and contains three times the amount of antigen.
These details may sound a bit like gobbledygook to you, but no matter. The important thing is they are formulated especially for older persons and they are all more effective than the regular flu shot. What to do? The best thing you can do is to rush out right now and get a flu shot with one of the above vaccines. You can probably get one for free or at low cost at your local pharmacy, and there is always your primary care provider. A flu shot will better protect you and your close family and friends.