By Scott Maanum, MD, Family Medicine
Getting your flu vaccine this fall is more important than ever. With the combined threat of COVID-19 and influenza, we are trying to take steps to minimize the burden of respiratory illness this fall and winter. In most of our lifetimes, we have not faced a dual-threat like this, and we need to be prepared. Flu vaccines can make a big impact on reducing the risk of respiratory illness, hospitalization, and death.
As a result of some of the steps we have taken to minimize the spread of COVID-19, many have postponed (or overlooked) certain preventive medical services, including vaccines. While there has been a lot of discussion about COVID-19 vaccines that are still in development, the flu vaccine is available and has been updated to better match the influenza viruses that are expected to be circulating this flu season. Past influenza illness or past influenza vaccination does not protect someone from future influenza infections. This is why it is necessary to get the flu vaccine every year to ensure maximal protection.
The influenza virus generally starts circulating in the fall. To ensure maximal protection, everyone over 6 months of age should consider getting their flu vaccine in September or October. Flu vaccine administration will continue as long as the flu virus is circulating, but it makes the most sense to get the vaccine early. This gives your body enough time to respond to the vaccine so that you will have the maximal protection before exposure to the influenza virus. Combined with other infection control measures, the flu vaccine adds a much-needed boost to combat the threat of flu-related illnesses.
Vaccines offer an opportunity to protect oneself from vaccine-preventable diseases and outbreaks. Not only can these efforts help the individual but they can help the population, particularly those that are most vulnerable. People who are more susceptible to complications of respiratory illness include young infants and children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, end-stage renal disease, cancers, and other conditions (or medication use) that weaken one’s immune system.
Medical staff continue to recommend frequent hand washing, avoidance of touching the face, covering a sneeze or cough, wearing a mask, washing all surfaces down, maintaining physical distancing, staying at home if you have a mild illness, and seeking medical care if your symptoms are more severe. All of these efforts for preventing the spread of COVID-19 apply for preventing the spread of influenza too.
As the influenza season is nearly upon us, we all have an opportunity to take precautions for ourselves and for others. If a substantial number of individuals choose to receive the flu vaccine this year, it has the potential to make a huge impact on reducing the burden of respiratory illness this fall and winter, and it can also lessen the burden on healthcare systems during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a physician and caregiver for individuals and the community, it is my hope that you will consider getting a flu vaccine. In this fight to preserve health, we all can make a difference.