By Nani Lawrence
Typically starting in the middle of fall, people flock to pharmacies to receive their annual flu shot.
Some people have started to skip this ritual, especially recently, because of the vaccine’s imperfect science, an adversity to needles, or a machismo fantasy of simply ‘toughing out’ a potentially deadly bout of the flu.
Efforts from the medical community have been made to focus this vaccine’s benefits more on public health than individual health, and rightfully so.
There is an obvious benefit to your own health, but it’s more important to those that you may care about, NMSU virus researcher Kathryn Hanley says.
“The reason I get the flu vaccine is that I have a 74-year-old mother and a niece or nephew about to be born,” she says.
The elderly, the immune-compromised, and babies under six months of age are especially susceptible to infection, due to an either aging or under-developed immune system. Under-developed systems cannot be vaccinated because they are not equipped to handle even an inactivated virus. Elderly individuals can and are highly encouraged to get the shot, but it won’t work quite as well as it might on a younger and healthier immune system.
“The more that the well-young community gets vaccinated, the more we can do something called cocooning the vulnerable population,” Hanley says.
If everyone around these vulnerable individuals are protected and therefore cannot pass on the virus, vulnerable populations do not have to worry about being stricken with an illness their systems won’t be able to fight off.
An objection to the flu vaccine in particular seems to be that the flu virus changes from year to year, calling for annual shots.
“If you get the measles vaccine, you are never going to get infected with measles. But when you get an influenza vaccine, you can still be infected with influenza,” Hanley says.
The flu originated in bird populations, says Hanley, and the virus has mutated so much as to be introduced into the human population.
According to the CDC, everything from severity of a flu season to even when the flu season will start is very unpredictable, which may be incentive to get vaccinated every year.
“You can still get sick (even if you’re vaccinated), but at least I feel like I tried everything I could to prevent it,” says Rita Ancira, an elderly retired resident from Alamogordo.
The concern about annual shots also stems from the vaccine not always being as effective as it could be in a certain flu season. Hanley says the vaccine lessens the severity of symptoms if you do happen to catch the flu.
“It does take up to 10 days for the flu vaccine to take full effect, so (those who believe it made them sick) might have been exposed elsewhere,” says Cruzita Montoya, a charge nurse at NMSU’s Health Center.
Although the flu is lurking around most of the year, it is very rare to actually be infected outside of colder fall/winter months.
The Health Center currently still has a vaccine called Fluzone available, which protects against four different strains of the virus, for a $20 fee.
A ‘flu mist’ is also available for those who don’t like needles. It isn’t available at the Health Center, says Montoya, but it is elsewhere in Las Cruces.
“It takes some prodding (to convince him), but my husband and I get our shots every year, along with pneumonia shots because of our age,” says Ancira.
According to Montoya, people with certain health conditions, such as Ancira’s husband, who has diabetes, could develop more severe cold symptoms.
The ‘cocooning’ effect Hanley mentioned, sometimes referred to as herd immunity, is terribly important for public health efforts, the researcher says.
“I think people really have a community responsibility to get vaccinated,” Hanley says.
The Health Center takes walk-in appointments from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. from Monday through Friday. Many pharmacies, such as Walgreens/CVS, will provide flu shots for free depending on health insurance.