It may still feel like summer, but it’s time to start preparing for winter. And that means understanding influenza, otherwise known as the flu.
Kaiser Permanente Walnut Creek’s Randy Bergen, MD, is the clinical lead for the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Influenza Task Force, and he’s also the featured guest for the next Health Talks Online monthly webinar titled “Preventing Colds and the Flu” on Wednesday, Sept. 4 at 12:30 p.m.
In this interview, Dr. Bergen shares the number 1 strategy for preventing influenza, why people can’t get the flu from the flu vaccine, and how severe the flu season is expected to be.
What’s the forecast for the upcoming flu season?
We think it’s going to be a fairly routine flu season.
Our forecasts are based on what went on during the winter in the Southern Hemisphere. It was a fairly standard flu season there; there wasn’t an emergence of a major new strain. Nevertheless, influenza is the most serious respiratory illness every winter, affecting millions of people. Every flu season has the risk of causing serious disease and illness.
What’s the number 1 strategy we can all use to prevent the flu?
Get the vaccine. It continues to be the most effective, safest way to prevent the flu. To some people, the vaccine’s effectiveness can seem low. One study says it’s 30 to 40 percent effective, while the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) says it’s 60 percent. But what does that really mean? We would like it to be 100 percent effective, but it’s not, partly because the virus changes every year, and our immune system’s response can vary.
There’s a telling statistic from a 2003 study of over 100,000 people over the age of 65: For every 61 doses of the vaccine, 1 hospitalization or death was prevented. Even when we see a 30 to 40 percent benefit, it has huge potential advantage for communities, families, and workplaces.
What about hand washing?
Basic hygiene such as washing your hands and covering your cough will protect you against all germs. Everyone should practice good hygiene. As a single strategy against influenza, though, the vaccine is the best protection.
What’s one of the biggest misconceptions about the vaccine?
People mistakenly believe that they can get sick from the vaccine. The vaccine is made by growing the virus and extracting certain parts to go into the vaccine. It’s just a piece of the germ. It can cause your arm to be sore, and that can lead to general achiness, but to get seriously sick is not possible.
The other part is that the term ‘flu’ has been used more generally, and we are not always sick with the flu. The vaccine protects against a specific winter virus, and there are plenty of other viruses out there that the vaccine doesn’t protect you against.
It’s coincidence when someone gets sick around the same time they receive the vaccine. Antibodies are the agents that fight off the flu germs, so the flu vaccine isn’t as effective during the first two weeks. That’s why we encourage people to get the flu shot in October and November before flu season hits.