Fighting the Flu Starts with Not Just You, But Your Entire Community
By Sam Smith, MD, Surgeon in Chief, Arkansas Children's Hospital
Just about every child I visit with at Arkansas Children's Hospital has the same question: "Am I gonna get a shot today?" It doesn't matter if I'm looking at a bump on their arm or a sore behind the ear, the conversation nearly always starts this way. Usually, I'm able to say no and the child brightens up. I can definitely sympathize with these kiddos because I would do anything to get out of a shot when I was younger.
Even as I reached an age where I was old enough to choose whether I took a shot, I didn't usually sign up for them. Even surgeons can have needle aversion! I've always been fairly healthy so when the fall and winter came each year, I took the Superman approach: "I don't need the shot because I don't get the flu."
But over the last few years, I've changed my mind. When the hospital began giving the flu vaccine to employees this year, I was one of the first in line. Why? Because it's paramount to protect other people – my patients, my co-workers, my family and anyone else who might be vulnerable to the flu's harsh effects. I do many things every day to protect both my patients and other people I care about, so why should this be any different?
People tend to underestimate the flu. They assume it just means a few days in bed with rest and fluids. And while this is true in many cases, the flu can be just as deadly in those who are strong and healthy as it is in people with weakened immune systems. Our worst flu epidemics have been those that struck our healthiest populations, like during 1918 when many of its victims were strapping soldiers and vibrant college students.
During the 2012-2013 flu season, Arkansas Children's Hospital had 263 children test positive for influenza and 70 of them had to stay in the hospital to recover. Some of those patients required intensive care and the use of assistive breathing technologies like ventilators and heart-lung bypass. Sadly, one child died because of the flu.
It's up to us to do our best to protect children from this disease. That is a vital community commitment. A parent may have protection from his own flu shot, but wants to ensure his infant son doesn't come down with the flu, as well. Everyone around this family must also take the vaccine to protect this little one, who can't receive a shot until 6 months of age.
People have lots of arguments for why they don't get the shot each year. They say it will give them the flu. This is unequivocally false. If anyone tells you they got sick from the vaccine, it's because they had a bug before taking it. The flu shot does NOT cause the flu.
They may say that it hurts. Honestly, it really doesn't. It's a little pinch, nothing worse than any parent has ever endured at the fingers of their toddler. There are ways to make it pinch even less, too. Don't flex your arm; relax the muscle and let the arm hang loosely before the vaccine is given. Then use that arm throughout the day. The more movement it gets, the less soreness you'll notice in the next 24 hours.
Some argue that vaccines aren't safe. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Centers for Disease Control and Food and Drug Administration endorse their safety. Parents should have no worries about their safety, and be confident that this is one of the best choices they can make for their children.
Others say they don't like needles. I can understand this, but thankfully there's an alternative nasal mist that is appropriate for certain populations. Definitely ask your physician if you're a candidate.
Everyone who isn't contraindicated should take a flu shot. The CDC recommends that a flu vaccine be a priority for children under 5 and especially those under 2 years old. Others who are especially vulnerable and need the vaccine include pregnant women, people over 50, people with any kind of chronic medical condition, those living in nursing homes and health care workers.
There are some people who shouldn't take the shot. They include those who have had a severe reaction to the vaccine in the past, children younger than 6 months of age, those who are currently ill and people with a history of Guillain–Barré Syndrome. Definitely consult your physician if you think you may be in one of these categories.
We can all play a role in helping protect populations who legitimately can't take the vaccine. Really, we should look at it as an obligation.
I can't imagine anything more heart-breaking than losing a child to an illness like the flu, which could have been prevented. It's worth putting aside our egos and enduring a little pinch to protect children from the flu.
Won't you join me in rolling up your sleeve and taking the shot this year?
Sam Smith, MD, is surgeon in chief at Arkansas Children's Hospital and a professor of Surgery at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He writes a column each week covering a variety of kids' medical concerns. If you have a topic you'd like him to consider addressing, email firstname.lastname@example.org.