Friday, August 26, 2016

The Humble Flu Shot Protects Seniors From a Host of Illnesses

By Erica Swegler, MD, Austin Family Physician
Member, TMA Be Wise — ImmunizeSM Advisory Panel

Imagine the headlines: "If you’re over age 65, you’re half as likely to die in the next year if you take (product XYZ)!"

"What?" you ask, "We have such a thing?" The answer is YES. If you are over age 65, you can decrease your risk of dying of any cause by about 50 percent in the coming year if you get an immunization of the high-dose flu vaccine (HD flu vaccine).

This HD flu vaccine is four times as potent as a traditional flu shot. For a year after getting the high-dose vaccine, you will:

  • Decrease your chance of dying of a stroke by 65 percent,
  • Decrease your risk of dying of kidney disease by 60 percent,
  • Decrease your risk of death from diabetes by 55 percent,
  • Decrease your risk of dying of pneumonia by 53 percent, and
  • Decrease your risk of dying of heart disease by 22 percent.

Two studies published during the past two years say you are less likely to have a heart attack (or die from one) if you had a flu shot in the year preceding it. Given this excellent data, as a physician interested in prevention, it puzzles me that only 70 percent of people over age 65 get a flu shot each year.

This vaccine rate has not changed in decades, despite a universal recommendation for people aged 65 and older to get the flu shot every year. Doctors and other health care experts have recommended this for longer than my entire 30 years as a physician. We fall far short of medicine’s Healthy People 2020 goal of 90 percent of the population immunized against flu. (Unfortunately, this was the same goal we had in 2010. Because we made no progress toward it, the goal was not increased.)

Why is this vaccination so important? The answer: These are potentially preventable deaths. When we’re over the age of 65, our bodies do not fight infection as well. Although seniors make up only 14.5 percent of the U.S. population, they represent more than one-third (35 percent) of hospital admissions. More importantly, seniors represent 60 percent of flu-related hospitalizations and 90 percent of flu-related deaths. On average, 36,000 people die each year in the United States from influenza, or flu, and pneumonia.

One published study shows the high-dose flu shot prevents 25 percent more people from getting the flu than the traditional flu shot, as well as decreasing their hospitalization and death rate by 25 percent. The high-dose flu shot is individually dosed, each in its own syringe, with no preservatives or thimerosol/mercury-like substance. Additionally, the flu shot has few true drawbacks; this is an extremely safe vaccine. (There was a concern about the flu shot by some people with egg allergies, but, as of last year, that is no longer an issue.) We understand the flu shot’s effectiveness varies year-by-year. However, I believe preventing even one out of five flu cases would be worthwhile, and last year it was better — we estimate the vaccine protected two out of three individuals.

The flu is not just a bad cold. It can leave you miserable and incapacitated for five to 10 days with symptoms like fever, body aches, sore throat, and cough. In some people, it can lead to pneumonia. Some die.

The flu vaccine should begin to be available by the end of this month and should become more widely available throughout September and October. You can get your shot as soon as it’s available to protect you throughout the 2016-17 flu season.

So, like any good barker at the county fair, I say "HEAR YE, HEAR YE!! Step right up to receive the shot proven to allow you to live longer!”

Let’s all roll up our sleeves!

Dr. Swegler is a family physician in Austin. Because adult vaccines in particular are so underutilized and because Dr. Swegler is a firm believer in vaccines and what they do for prevention, she speaks for both Merck and Sanofi Pasteur, the latter of which makes flu vaccines.

Be Wise — Immunize is a service mark of the Texas Medical Association.

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