I hardly felt the needle pierce my skin. I was distracted by my daughter, who shut her eyes tight as a needle pricked her thin arm and by my son, who stood crying beside me. He knew he was next in line for the flu shot.
I didn’t know it then, but I could’ve bypassed the needle trauma. The nurses could have given the boy, at least, the nasal flu mist. I would’ve had to pay extra for that, of course, and the flu shot is pretty mild in the world of shots, thus reinforcing for him that it really does only hurt for a second.
Despite the drama, I’m glad I got my kids vaccinated.
This year, for the first time ever, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all school- age children receive flu vaccinations. Their goal is to protect children, who are particularly susceptible to flu and complications from the flu, and, by protecting kids, protect the general population.
“We still see a number of children die every year from the flu,” says Susan Mims, medical director of Mission Children’s Hospital.
About 200,000 people in the United States end up in the hospital and about 36,000 people die because of the flu each year, according to the CDC. Flu and pneumonia together constitute the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. (So you’ve stopped eating red meat to protect your heart, but you still don’t want to get a flu shot?) Studies show that, in a typical year, more than 1,600 North Carolinians 65 and older will die of complications from flu and pneumonia.
In addition to the elderly, those most at risk are babies under 6 months old, who can’t get the shot but can contract the virus from older siblings or other kids, according to Mims.
I haven’t vaccinated my kids against the flu every year. My approach has been scattershot. I decided this year would be a good one to follow through on the vaccine after my daughter told me all about the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. While reading Dan Gutman’s book, “Shoeless Joe and Me,” she looked up and said, “Mom, did you realize that more than 50 million people died in the 1918 flu pandemic?” I said, “yes,” although, in truth, I hadn’t realized the number was that high. Turns out, it may have been up to 100 million deaths. All of us alive today either survived the flu pandemic or are descended from someone who did. Wow.
“So why didn’t they get flu shots?” my girl asked.
“They didn’t have that option,” I said. “But we do.”
When I worked in schools, I always got the flu shot. As any first-year teacher will tell you, your immune system gets bombarded with viruses in a school setting. Eventually you build up immunity, but the flu is one of the last viruses you want to contract. Because even your strong adult immune system can get knocked for a loop for days by the flu.
Nationwide, 22 million school days are lost annually due to the flu and common colds—and that’s by students, not teachers. Statistics show that some viruses and bacteria can live from 20 minutes up to two hours or more on surfaces like cafeteria tables, doorknobs and desks. So your first-grader may have washed his hands just before lunch, but when he sits down to eat, he puts a hand on the table and picks up the flu virus that a kindergartner left behind half an hour previously. Yuck.
And now you don’t even have to get a shot. The good news about the flu mist is that because it’s a live virus, it may actually be more effective than the shot anyway, according to Mims. The bad news is there’s also a slightly higher risk of a reaction, although reactions are rare. Mims says a kid might get a runny nose or feel a bit achy for a day or so after the mist, but even that much of a reaction is unusual. Typically, the only reaction to the shot is a sore arm.
I asked Dr. Mims about the ever-present rumors that the mercury in Thimerosol, formerly used as a preservative in vaccines, can hurt kids. The things today’s parents have to worry about just about send me into a panic attack sometimes.
She assured me that neither the nasal spray nor the single dose flu shot contain Thimerosol, nor do any childhood vaccinations since about 2001.
“Numerous studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health and others show there is no correlation between the mercury in Thimerosol and adverse health effects,” she emphasizes.
She also pointed me to the American Association of Pediatricians Web site, at www.aap.org, which this year recommends all children aged 6 months to 18 years be vaccinated. Their point: influenza kills more people in the U.S. each year than all other vaccine-preventable diseases combined.
“Basically, the more people we have vaccinated in the community, the less likely the flu is to spread throughout the community. By getting the flu vaccination, you’re protecting yourself, your kids and your community,” Mims says.
All that for one second of discomfort.