Health Tidbits by Dr. Dustin Gentry

The Truth about Flu shots – Doctor’s confession. 


Every major health organization recommends that you get a flu shot each year, but how well do the shots really work? The truth is that last year they didn’t work well at all – about 23% per the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). In years prior the average efficacy of the flu vaccines has been much better at about 60-85%. So by all measures last year was a bust for the developers of the flu vaccine.

Do you feel let down? “I took the shot! Why didn’t it work?” I hear you loud and clear. I think the reason for our angst is a longstanding disconnect between how well we expect the flu shot to work and the reality of how well it really works. This disconnect is the fault of the medical community as a whole because we have not been forthcoming enough about the shortfalls of this particular vaccine. To offer a remedy, here are a few facts to set the record straight when it comes to flu vaccines:

1. The flu shot has never worked 100% of the time for everyone vaccinated. Even in a really good year the best anyone would expect is about 85% effectiveness, and some say that is a stretch.
2. The flu vaccine can most definitely cause someone to feel fatigued for a few days but it cannot cause the flu. The fatigue that is sometimes paired with the flu vaccine is a normal immune response.
3. When someone gets the flu a few days after receiving the flu vaccine, that person didn’t get the flu from the vaccine but instead from some other source in the community.
4. It takes about 2-3 weeks for the flu vaccine to build immunity in your body. So it’s best to get the vaccine several weeks before the flu really starts circulating.

Now that we have a good framework of what to expect from the flu vaccine, should we give the vaccine developers a pass on last year’s fail? Absolutely. The flu virus is unlike other communicable diseases for which we have vaccines (measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, polio) as it mutates on a yearly basis so much that a person’s immune system will not recognize it the next year. It is similar to wearing a different mask each Halloween. When knocking on someone’s door, how can they recognize you until you come inside and take off the mask?

Each year the developers of the flu vaccine use scientific data, seasonal trends, and good ole fashion guesses to figure out which “mask” the flu virus will be wearing for the next season. Last year (spring 2014) these developers picked Superman…and it turned out to be Alice in Wonderland. So the flu got into a lot of people’s houses and caused some havoc.

But all is not lost. Getting the flu vaccine is still important. Even in a bad year (like last year) your chance of getting the flu is significantly higher if you don’t get vaccinated for the flu. I suspect that this year’s flu shot will be a lot more effective than last year.

The important thing is to realize that the flu vaccine is not perfect, but it still plays a vital role in public and personal health. Despite its imperfections, this doctor believes that the benefits outweigh the risks. I get my flu vaccine every year, and I believe you should too. Talk to your doctor today!

Dr. Dustin Gentry is a Family Medicine physician at Winston Medical Center. He has an active clinic, nursing home, and hospital practice at WMC and is available forall your healthcare needs. You can schedule an appointment today by calling 773-3503