Flu shots help save lives, protect the vulnerable

When you get the flu vaccine, you benefit more than just yourself.

As summer comes to an end, and we begin to look forward to the fall, it’s a good time to start thinking about how best to protect ourselves and our loved ones from illnesses like influenza.

The Public Health Agency of Canada estimates that between 2,000 and 8,000 Canadians die every year from influenza and its complications. BC provides the flu shot free each year to those considered at higher risk of developing influenza complications, or those who care for them. That list includes:

* People over age 65 and their caregivers;

* Children and adults with chronic health conditions and their household contacts;

* Health-care workers;

* Emergency responders;

* Healthy children aged six months to five years;

* Household contacts and caregivers of children aged zero to five years;

* Pregnant women who will be in their third trimester during the influenza season;

* Residents of nursing homes and other chronic-care facilities;

* Aboriginal peoples; and

* People who are very obese (with a body mass index of 40 or greater).

Even if you are not considered a person of high risk, if you regularly interact with or work around someone who is, I strongly encourage you to get vaccinated for their sake. High-risk populations can suffer severe consequences from influenza, including death. Bacterial pneumonia (an infection of the lungs) is the most common complication from influenza, especially in elderly people. It can also lead to more complications for people who have heart, lung, or other health conditions.

For these reasons, it is especially important that health-care workers get their flu shot each year, and I would like to acknowledge and thank those who do get vaccinated. As a physician myself, I know how important it is to protect patients. All the major professional health care bodies, such as the College of Registered Nurses of BC, support vaccination of health-care workers.

Unfortunately, each year throughout BC, fewer than 50 per cent of health-care workers get immunized against influenza. This rate is too low – patients deserve better. Some jurisdictions in the U.S. have achieved 95 per cent coverage of health-care workers.

There is significant evidence in long-term care facilities that high health-care worker influenza vaccine coverage results in diminished illness and fewer deaths. Getting the flu shot should be considered standard patient safety practice for all health-care workers who come into contact with patients – as important as following effective hand hygiene practices or wearing a mask in the operating room.

I would like to briefly address the concerns that some people have about the vaccine, as each year far fewer people get vaccinated than we in the public health community would like to see. The flu vaccine is extremely safe. It is not possible to contract the flu from getting a flu shot, because the publicly funded vaccines use only killed (inactive) virus particles. There is also no risk of developing conditions like autism from the flu vaccine (or any vaccine, for that matter). It is far safer to get the vaccine than to get sick – especially if you or someone you love is considered high risk.

Vaccines have been one of the most important medical advances of the modern era, and have been responsible for wiping out (or nearly eliminating) once common illnesses, such as smallpox. This year, if you are eligible for a free flu shot, I encourage you to get immunized. If you are a parent, ensure that your child’s other vaccinations are up-to-date. Vaccines are safe and effective. They reduce illness and save lives.

Dr. Perry Kendall is a

BC Provincial Health Officer