HOUSTON - Each year, people at risk of severe, even life-threatening influenza refuse the flu shot. The reasons vary, but the most frequent excuses health care providers hear are ‘I never get the flu;' ‘the shot gave me the flu;' or simply, ‘I don't like shots.'
If you say you have not had the flu, count yourself lucky. Frequently, younger people have less severe cases of flu and misdiagnose the symptoms as a cold or a few sniffles. But as we age, our immune systems become slower to respond to attacks by fast-growing viruses.
Within 24 hours, each flu virus multiplies into a billion equally aggressive and dangerous flu viruses. The virus continues to reproduce and spread, destroying new cells in your upper respiratory tree at an astonishing rate. After two days, enough damage has been done that you get a sore throat and feel achy. Your body also responds by raising your temperature and increasing sinus and pulmonary secretions.
During the next two weeks, the virus in your system is the most dangerous. This is especially true for people whose immune systems are not fully developed; children, the elderly, those who are weak, tired, or rundown, and individuals who are immune-compromised or immune-suppressed.
The fevers and sputum production at this time requires a lot of energy and liquids. Even worse, it is at this point that bacteria can invade the lungs causing dangerous bacterial pneumonia. This places an even greater strain on the body as the temperature again rises, lungs become congested, and respiration becomes difficult.
For someone whose body is already suffering chronic lung, metabolic, or heart disease, the body does not have extra energy to fight this new, very aggressive bacterial attack. It is during this time that people need to go to an emergency room, be admitted for hospital care, or die. Around 40,000 Americans die of flu each year and more than 100,000 must be hospitalized. There is no count of how many miss work, school, or perhaps important social events.
After two weeks, you begin to improve as your immune system finally fights back against the invading virus with very specific antibody. But while the acute flu symptoms subside, your body now starts to rebuild tissues and the energy reserves. Recovery can take another two to three weeks during which you feel unmotivated, weak, and tired.
People who have suffered with the flu can testify to those who refuse the vaccine that they do not know how bad it really is.
VA health care professionals are charged with the responsibility to protect Veterans against the flu with the best that health care science has to offer. Vaccination is very effective in shortening the duration of illness, decreasing the severity of illness, decreasing the need for hospitalization, decreasing work time lost; and most importantly, decreasing deaths from flu.
For people who believe the vaccine gave them the flu, there are basically two ways this can appear to happen. First, vaccinations are generally given during the fall. Every year, three major viruses spread through southeast Texas before the flu even arrives.
These viruses cause colds that can at times appear to be flu. But, those who have had the real flu know that common colds are much milder by comparison. It is impossible for the vaccine material to give you the flu. It is a "dead" vaccine and cannot make anyone sick.
Second, some people may have a reaction to the vaccine as if it was "live." The body responds to the invasion of vaccine material by increasing the body temperature as well as nasal and lung secretions.
This may be interpreted as the flu, but is it really the flu? No, this mild response only lasts a few days. Once the body reacts to it, the material is consumed and the body relaxes. The vaccine is definitely not transmissible and will definitely not make anyone else sick.
However, experts agree if you have this type of response to a "dead" vaccine, your body will react strenuously to the real flu and suffer a very serious flu infection. These individuals really do need to be vaccinated.
When you are not vaccinated, the flu can attack and destroy upper respiratory tissue unchallenged for nearly two weeks. Hospitalizations and death occur during this time.
How does the flu vaccine work and why is it the best way to protect against the flu? With a natural flu virus infection, it takes two weeks for the body to build enough immunity. During these two weeks, the body is being attacked by a growing number of flu virus. But, when a person is vaccinated, the vaccine kick-starts the body into producing specific antibody supported immunity.
After two weeks, the body has not only produced antibody that can specifically attack the flu virus; but, it has also made factory-like cells that can produce huge amounts of antibody in a couple of days when needed.
The good news is that when the body is exposed to real flu virus, the body fights back very effectively from the time of viral invasion. The virus rarely gets enough of a head start to make the patient sick for even a day. Most people do not even know that they have been exposed to flu. Vaccine-produced antibody is a very effective first line defense for the body.
This year, an abundant supply of influenza vaccine is available at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center (MEDVAMC) and its seven outpatient clinics. Vaccinations will continue through March 2012. Veterans who should seriously consider vaccination are:
• Over 50 years of age.
• Residents of long-term facilities.
• Veterans with long-term health problems of the heart, lungs, asthma, kidneys, or diabetes and other metabolic diseases.
• Veterans with muscle or nerve disorders involving swallowing or breathing.
• Veterans with weakened immune systems.
• Women Veterans who may be pregnant during the flu season.
For more information, contact the MEDVAMC Preventive Medicine Program at (713) 794-8768 or talk to your primary care provider.
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Awarded re-designation for Magnet Recognition for Excellence in Nursing Services in 2008, the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center serves as the primary health care provider for more than 130,000 veterans in southeast Texas. Veterans from around the country are referred to the MEDVAMC for specialized diagnostic care, radiation therapy, surgery, and medical treatment including cardiovascular surgery, gastrointestinal endoscopy, nuclear medicine, ophthalmology, and treatment of spinal cord injury and diseases. The MEDVAMC is home to a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Clinic; Network Polytrauma Center; an award-winning Cardiac and General Surgery Program; Liver Transplant Center; VA Epilepsy and Cancer Centers of Excellence; VA Substance Abuse Disorder Quality Enhancement Research Initiative; Health Services Research & Development Center of Excellence; VA Rehabilitation Research of Excellence focusing on mild to moderate traumatic brain injury; Mental Illness Research, Education and Clinical Center; and one of the VA’s six Parkinson’s Disease Research, Education, and Clinical Centers. Including the outpatient clinics in Beaumont, Conroe, Galveston, Houston, Lufkin, Richmond, and Texas City, MEDVAMC outpatient clinics logged almost 1.3 million outpatient visits in fiscal year 2011. For the latest news releases and information about the MEDVAMC, visit www.houston.va.gov.