Influenza and the Dog Days of Summer: Why You Need to Get Vaccinated

The kids are just starting school, and summer is winding down, although in many places around the country we’re still seeing heat waves. Way too early to think about flu? Not in the medical world, and here’s why.

Early last spring, scientists began planning for the 2010-11 influenza vaccine. They were looking at specific types of influenza that were circulating in the southern hemisphere. The flu seasons are offset by a half year in the northern and southern hemispheres. So often, some variation of the dominant influenza strains in the south will wreak havoc on the north the following winter.

Let me mention what the stakes are in this virus pick. In a normal year, 36,000 people will die in this country of influenza. More than 200,000 will be hospitalized for same. There are hundreds of variations of the two basic flu viruses (A and B). “A”s tend to be the most troubling, as they genetically change more often and more dramatically. If the wrong viruses are picked, things get dicey rather fast.

Having picked the three viruses, the vaccine manufacturing machine then kicks into high gear. With the combined efforts of 2 large vaccine producers and a couple of smaller companies, they design and produce roughly 500 million doses. Just think about designing and manufacturing a custom product with a short shelf life and distributing it worldwide in 5 months. Kind of makes you think differently about flu shots. They represent an immense amount of work and worldwide cooperation.

So what happens when you get a dose of the current flu vaccine? Your immune system starts cranking out antibodies against the specific influenza types contained in this year’s vaccine. It takes your body about 2 weeks to have sufficient levels of immunity to fight off an influenza exposure. Having developed this immunity, you might wonder how long it lasts. No worries. It will take you through this season and into the next year’s. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says to get your immunization as soon as it’s available. (U.S. HealthWorks currently has the flu vaccine available. Check out where you can find a medical center near you).

All influenza viruses are made of a few genetic building blocks. That means a lot of different viruses have some common genes, so you do end up getting some protection against viruses other than the 3 covered in the vaccine. The more years you get vaccinated, the broader your immunity will be.

Many people wonder if immunity is something you can use up. Except in overwhelming infection, immunity is like exercise – the more you do, the better you are.

The influenza vaccine is one of the greatest success stories of modern medicine. It’s an example of true worldwide cooperation to eradicate this terrible disease. In the recent past, influenza killed millions. Today, this terrible scourge can be avoided with a simple shot or snort.

Dr. B

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