Sorting out the data–how to choose the right flu vaccine for you

In 2009, the H1N1, or bird flu threat sent people running to health departments and physicians offices across the country in search of a coveted vaccine.  Standing in long lines in hopes of receiving a vaccine was commonplace and many were turned away due to shortages in the manufacturing process.  Thankfully, flu season came and went without quite as much illness as health care officials had feared.  While many people took a shot, there were still many others that chose not to. All flu vaccines carry risks–some types of flu shot may be better for you than others as well.  With new advancements, the last decade has allowed researchers to develop both live and inactivated forms of the flu vaccine and while each may hold some benefit there can be risks associated as well.  So before signing on the dotted line and rolling up a sleeve, consider your options when it comes to flu shots for the entire family.

In 2010, the CDC made changes to the guidelines for use of the flu vaccine.  Guidelines now suggest that the vaccine be administered to everyone in the population who is over the age of six months and who does not have a contraindication to the vaccine.  High risk population groups such as those with asthma, diabetes, organ transplants and weakened immune systems used to take priority over all others but now officials want everyone vaccinated across the board. Hearing the terms “Flumist” (which is actually a brand), and “flu shot” may be confusing to some.  Most mass flu clinics organized around the country are providing the “flu shot”, simply because the “mist” form requires a bit more in depth screening before administration which can effect wait times for those standing in line for their turn.

Flu mist is a live attenuated virus (LAIV).  Attenuated viruses contain low amounts of living viruses that will reproduce slowly, but should not be virulent enough to cause the disease.  For this reason, the LAIV–which is given up the nose in a fine mist and then absorbed into the moist lining of the nasal passages–should be given with caution to anyone who may have a weakened immune system.  While the incidence of flu infection after a mist is low, anyone who has a weakened immune system may lack the defenses necessary to fend off the virus or produce the necessary antibodies for defense.  As a result, illness may occur. Those at highest risk include chemotherapy patients, organ transplant recipients, stem cell transplant patients, the very old, the very young and pregnant women. The inactivated flu vaccine is given by injection into the muscle for absorption.  Despite what many people claim there is no live vaccine in the inactivated form to cause illness.  The vaccine does contain formaldehyde, a chemical used to kill the virus before it is purified and packed for distribution.  Multiple dose flu vials–such as those used in flu clinics also contain thimerosal–a preservative used to prevent contamination of the vaccine before use.  These additives could be linked to reactions in some people.

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