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Roll up your sleeve: medical experts weigh in on benefits of flu shot

By Kathy Yanchus • REVIEW STAFF

It’s flu shot time, time to dust off all those excuses for not getting the vaccine.

Do any of these self-rationalizations sound familiar – the vaccine actually causes the flu; five or more consecutive flu shots and you’re a candidate for Alzheimer’s, or how about this one, you never get sick so what’s the point?

Every flu season, medical experts are inundated with queries, misconceptions and just plain falsehoods about the flu vaccine. To set the record straight, professionals assure that there is absolutely no link between Alzheimer’s and the flu vaccine and the vaccine will not give you the flu.

“Probably the biggest misconception about the flu shot is that the negatives outweigh the positives,” said W. Glen Pyle, PhD, associate professor at the University of Guelph’s department of biomedical sciences cardiovascular research group. “The reason why I think, is there’s a lot of information available to people, which is great they have access to all this information, but not all of it is quality information. Anyone can post whatever they want on the Internet without providing supporting information.”

One of the most frequent comments from people is that two days after getting the flu shot, they came down with the flu, said Andrew Draves, associate owner of the two Shoppers Drug Mart locations in Waterdown.

“It’s not possible to get the flu from the flu shot, it is simply not possible because it’s not a live virus,” said Draves. “There’s a lot of apathy out there among people. You know, ‘I’ve never had the flu and I don’t get it so why bother?’ A lot of people don’t see it as a major health risk. There are also concerns with whether or not it contains mercury.”

Influenza vaccines do not contain mercury, he stated. They do contain thimerosal, which contains a type of mercury, but there is no evidence suggesting the amount of thimerosal poses a health risk, according to the World Health Organization, said Dr. Joyce Lock, a physician with Hamilton’s public health service.

“They’ve tried to link it to a bunch of different things but it’s all bologna,” claimed Draves.

The only study that has been done shows that the flu vaccine does not cause Alzheimer’s; in fact, said Pyle, the study shows perhaps people who get the flu shot are less at risk.

“They’re not saying the vaccine itself protects you against Alzheimer’s but one of their interpretations of that is that perhaps people who get the flu shot, are more conscious of their health, so they’re regularly monitoring their health and are able to keep these things in check longer, they’re eating properly, and are generally healthier individuals. But there is absolutely no link between the flu shot and Alzheimer’s,” noted Pyle.

People need to educate themselves to see whether what someone has said or written is true, said Pyle.

“Certainly people have to decide for themselves (whether or not to get the flu shot). There are certainly some groups where the negatives may outweigh the positives and they need to consider that. People with allergies, bad reactions, if they have an underlying health condition then with the vaccine, or any sort of drug that you take, you have to consider what the risks are and discuss that with your doctor,” said Pyle.

People should also be aware of the risks both to themselves and the general population when they don’t get the flu vaccine – or any vaccine, said Pyle.

“If you decide not to get a vaccination, that’s your choice, but keep in mind that you now can help these diseases propagate and spread to other people,” he said.

Pyle understands why people develop misconceptions and believes the reasons are two-fold: research scientists are not always good at communicating to the general public, and people want definitive reasons why something dire happened to a loved one.

“People want to know why and it’s very easy to point to something and say, ‘This is the cause and I’m now comforted by knowing this.’ We all want to know why something happened,” said Pyle.

One of the other big myths is that people often don’t believe a flu shot protects them against the virus that causes fever, chills, muscle aches, a cough and headache,” said Draves. “There have been instances in the past where the flu shot may not offer them full coverage because it may not match up well with the one that’s circulating that year, but it generally does. As long as it’s matched up well, the flu shot prevents anywhere from 70 to 90 per cent of flu. It’s constantly changing and that’s why we have to have it on a yearly basis.”

Getting the flu shot is always better than not getting it because some protection is better than none, added Lock.

Each year, 10 to 20 per cent of Canadians become infected with influenza, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. While the majority who become sick will recover, the flu results in an average of 20,000 hospitalizations. Every year, between 2,000 and 8,000 Canadians die of flu and its complications.

The flu shot is recommended for everyone over the age of six months, particularly the elderly, the very young and those with chronic conditions that put them at higher risk of complications from the flu, and anyone who deals with the public on a regular basis, said Draves.

“If you’re going to be exposing people in those groups to it, then you should, in my opinion, be vaccinated as well,” he said.

Last year, Hamilton Public Health distributed approximately 135,000 doses of flu vaccine, which means that about 25 per cent of Hamiltonians received the flu shot, said Lock.

Some confuse the flu with the common cold, she added.

“With a cold, fever and headache are rare and muscle aches are mild,” said Lock. “With the flu, you become very unwell with a cough, a high fever, severe headache and muscle aches and pains, and a tiredness and weakness that can last up to two or three weeks. Children may get nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.”

As for the myth that you can avoid the flu by staying away from people who are sick, Lock said people can start spreading the virus a day or two before they start to show symptoms.

The best protection against the flu is by getting the flu shot and by frequent hand washing because the virus can stay alive for several hours on door handles and other objects that we touch, she added.

People can make their own choice about whether or not to get the flu shot, but Waterdown’s Dr. James Faught said most of his patients are happy to get it.

“They realize the value of it,” he said.

This year, new legislation has allowed pharmacists to give flu shots.

“We’ve always had vaccinations here at the store but nurses have been doing it. The new part about it is I’m trained now to give shots,” said Draves. “I think it’s good for the community because it makes it far more accessible. Influenza vaccination rates in general aren’t very high and I think it will allow another avenue for people to get vaccinated who otherwise may just ignore it or miss it. It makes it far more convenient.”

“I’m a big proponent of vaccinations, I do think they save lives and the benefits far outweigh the risks, but there is a lot of misunderstanding out there amongst the general population,” said Draves.

The final flu clinic held by the City of Hamilton was on November 8, however, the Public Health Services department will continue to post other agency’s flu clinics, such as the one Saturday, November 24 at Bombin & Black Health Care Centre, 1795 Stone Church Road. E. in Stoney Creek between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.

In Waterdown, the Shopper’s Drug Mart at 255 Dundas St. East will hold two more flu clinics on Nov. 21 and 24 between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. both days.

If needles are actually at the heart of why you don’t get the flu shot, the vaccine also comes in a nasal spray. However, this form is not offered for free.

For more information about the flu shot, visit the Hamilton Public Health web site at www.hamilton.ca/flu or the Ontario Ministry of Health at www.health.gov.on.ca/en/public/programs/publichealth/flu/

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