Submitted by Geoffrey Ankeney, MD, Family Practice, Kaiser Permanente Olympia Medical Center
I strongly recommend you get your flu shot. This is because, although I don’t know what it feels like to be run over by a herd of wooly mammoths, I think I have a good idea thanks to the flu.
I once claimed a required flu shot was against my religion, which isn’t exactly true
unless by ‘religion’ you mean, “I believe needles hurt.” But that year I did end up on the list of objectors and, lucky me, I didn’t have to get the shot.
Then, surprise! I got the flu a few months later.
I honestly think I’d have preferred the mammoth stampede. The first symptoms attacked suddenly. My body ached, everywhere. Toes, waist, forehead. Heck, I think my eyelashes hurt.
Not long after, the fever and sore throat arrived. Advil barely helped, and swallowing the pills gave the distinct impression of swallowing thistles. Or fishhooks.
In a moment of miserable circumspection, I realized that uncontrollable shivering (the next in the march of symptoms) when every square millimeter of my body ached beyond reason, is an experience that deserves a place in the Tower of London’s Torture Museum.
Speaking of Medieval suffering, the flu has been killing people for a long time. Hippocrates described it 2400 years ago. We know of a bad outbreak in 1580 where around 8000 people died in Rome and wiped out numerous surrounding villages.
And, of course, Spain is where the great pandemic of 1918 started (nobody’s fault, we’re all friends here) and killed something in the 50-100 million people range. That’s the entire death toll of World War II, just to give a little scope to the devastation. Even today, nearly 500,000 people globally die every year from influenza.
How is it that what amounts to little more than a bad cold becomes such a killer? All kinds of ways, but the flu is particularly adept at damaging lung tissue, allowing a very quick morph into pneumonia. Also, the immune system can react so harshly to the infection that severe sepsis develops, which can quickly become lethal.
Aside from the ‘religion’ thing, I also avoided the vaccine because it’s only a prediction by the CDC of which flu strain would arrive in the upcoming winter. Their predictions can be only half-right. Why get it?
The reason is because even a half-right vaccine will soften the blow of a flu infection. What’s more, even if you don’t die from the flu, lots of people around you don’t have the Ninja skills of your immune system; they’re praying nobody throws the virus their way. What gives you a miserable week can kill someone’s kid.
These days, I get my flu shot every year. Sometimes I’ll get a second one, as penance for the year I skipped. (I’m kidding. I still hate needles.) Pretty much everyone is eligible with a few exceptions. And yes, there are risks, but they’re minor and improbable.
So even with the few risks, just go get the flu shot. The alternatives are far worse.