Putting the “preventable” back in “preventable disease”
You may have read a recent opinion piece in the Daily Mail about not letting a child get the flu vaccine. It fits the Daily Mail pretty well, because not only does it have a confusing number of sub-headings — seriously, three dot points and none of them are really necessary — but it is also largely wrong about the science.
There’s always a bit of to-and-fro when it comes to vaccines, and none more so than the flu vaccination. It’s unpleasant to get, and the tangible benefit — not getting sick — is pretty hard to see. As a healthy, 27-year-old man, I’m ‘not sick’ 340-odd days a year, so it’s hard to notice if the few days that I do get sick are reduced by the week or so that I’d lose to the influenza virus.
In the days of modern medicine flu has become a disease that, for many of us, is just a nasty irritation. You get it, take a few days off work, and then crawl back to your desk bleary-eyed and headachey. If you’re an adult aged 20–65, chances are that the flu is just an annoyance — painful and debilitating, but easy to ignore in the scheme of things.
But this cavalier attitude that has become so commonplace belies the truth.
The flu is a nasty disease. It kills hundreds of thousands each year.
And much of that suffering is preventable.
Baddest Disease On The Block
The influenza virus is a bit of a tricky one. Not only are there three types — A, B and C — there are also within-type subgroups of the virus that are classified based on the number of certain proteins that they have on the outside. This is why when you hear of a flu virus, you’ll often hear some letters and numbers; for example, H1N1 and H3N2 are common sub-types of virus.
It also mutates really quickly, giving it virus-like superpowers. In this case, rather than saving the world like the X-Men the virus uses its mutant abilities to infect more of your cells and make you more sick. Like Magneto, but with fewer cliched helmets and more phlegm.
What this means is that it is really hard to vaccinate for the flu. Vaccines are created so that your body can recognize one invader, but the flu contains multitudes. Vaccinating against one strain of influenza might not protect against another, and there are so many strains that it is hard to keep up. The World Health Organization makes an educated guess about which strains are going to be circulating in your flu season based off the winter in the previous hemisphere, but it’s as much an art as a science.
In practical terms this means that the flu vaccine only protects against a portion — around 50% — of influenza infections.
There is also evidence that the flu vaccine also makes serious infections less likely, reducing the chances that you’ll get really sick and have to go to hospital, but as Kate says in her opinion piece the flu isn’t that serious anyway, and the vaccination isn’t 100%, so why bother?
“I don’t mind if Max gets the flu this winter. He’ll probably be off school for a day and then crack on as normal.”
There’s a fundamental assumption that many people, including Kate Hopkins, have made about influenza. You see, they think it is a safe, innocuous infection.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
People tend to associate the common cold with the flu, because they are both viruses that we get a lot in winter and the symptoms can be similar. But this association is untrue.
They are not the same.
While getting the cold is an uncomfortable experience for a week or so, getting the flu might not just land you in a hospital bed; if you’re under 10 or over 65 it can be scarily fatal.
The World Health Organization estimates that 250,000–500,000 people die each year from influenza. That’s a lot. And in case you were wondering, it’s not just developing countries: thousands of people die in countries like the US and UK each year, with the worst people hit being young children, the elderly, and pregnant women.
In fact, influenza has been one of the most dangerous diseases of the last 100 years, killing more people than HIV.
The flu is anything but benign.
The simple fact is that the flu vaccine saves lives. There’s some argument over things like cost-benefit — it can be expensive to vaccinate everyone — but this does not extend to the vulnerable.
All of these groups are at very significantly increased risks of serious illness and even death from a bout of the flu. Your child might be healthy now, but even the healthiest kids can find themselves in the ICU because of a nasty infection. Being complacent about health is why we are currently experiencing a resurgence of diseases like measles and diptheria, things that most doctors thought were many years in the past.
I’d rather just not get sick
I get my vaccine because a) I work in a hospital and b) I don’t want to get the flu. Reason a) is the big one, because working in a hospital means that I’m constantly near people who are immunocompromised and can get sick really easily. Reason b) is, however, also important, because I’ve gotten the flu before and I’d rather just…not get sick. Wouldn’t you?
Ultimately it’s not about being selfish. It’s about being smart. The flu vaccine has a very minimal risk of side-effects, and stops you from getting a really nasty bug.
Vaccinate your children. Keep them safe, keep yourself safe, keep others safe.
It’s not just the right thing to do.
It’s the smart thing to do.