Public health nurse administers flu shot: Government of Alberta

Public health nurse administers flu shot: Government of Alberta
Used under CC by-NC-ND 2.0

Flu Vaccine Your Best Shot for Staying Healthy

Annual vaccination helps prevent influenza infections, and also has long-term benefits


Even for people who believe strongly in vaccination, the flu shot can be a tough sell. Many Canadians believe that they are healthy enough to fight off the infection, or don’t trust the flu shot because being vaccinated in a previous year didn’t prevent them from getting sick. This sentiment can be magnified when people catch other winter illnesses, such as the cold, which are commonly mistaken for the flu.

Only one third of Canadians get the flu shot.

While the vaccine is not perfect, relying on experts to predict which flu viruses will be circulating months before flu season starts, it is still the best protection we have against getting the flu.

The flu can be deadly, and the vaccine is the least effective for many of the most vulnerable

The risks associated with getting the flu are enormous: each year, tens of thousands of Canadians are hospitalized, and a few thousand die from flu-related complications, such as pneumonia. Unfortunately, the flu shot is the most effective in young people, who often feel that they are healthy enough to fight off the infection, putting infants and older people at risk. In fact, vaccinating children, who tend to spread winter illnesses, can often protect the whole family.

If you believe in herd immunity and doing what you can to protect the vulnerable, and you are medically able, you should get the flu shot.

Still not convinced? Preventing the flu may prevent other more devastating diseases later in life, like dementia and diabetes

Typically, it isn’t the flu that sends patients to the hospital, but flu-related complications, like bacterial pneumonia. Especially in older people, the flu and pneumonia go hand in hand, as the flu weakens the immune system.

However, while it is possible to treat infections like the flu and pneumonia, inflammation from the immune response to pneumonia can trigger many more devastating diseases in people over 50 years old, including dementia, type II diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Prof. Dawn Bowdish, Canada Research Chair on Aging and Immunity and Associate Professor at McMaster University, is searching for a connection between these diseases. She is studying the effects of flu infections on mice, which share similar immune systems to humans.

Her research shows that elderly mice that received flu vaccines when they were young stayed healthier and were less likely to develop chronic illnesses as seniors. By contrast, older mice that were not vaccinated were more prone to early development of other diseases, and if they became infected with the flu, the infection accelerated the progress to chronic illness in the long term.

The reason why respiratory illness contributes to these diseases is not well understood, but they are all associated with chronic inflammation. Even after fighting off a pneumonia infection, levels of inflammation can remain slightly elevated; the effect of having been infected doesn’t simply go away. For patients who were already predisposed to developing dementia or type II diabetes, this added stress may that push them over the line.

Get the straight facts on the flu

Knowledge is the best way to increase vaccination rates. Check out FLU Facts, an interactive website by biomedical communicator Natalie Cormier, to learn everything from the anatomy of a flu virus and how it can evolve, to why it’s important to get vaccinated every year.

Watch her animation below to find out how a flu infection works, how the immune system plays a role in fighting the infection, and why the flu shot protects our communities.

Animation courtesy of Natalie Cormier
All rights reserved, used with permission

Want to learn more about Prof. Dawn Bowdish? Check out her Orange Chair Interview or Researchers In Reality blog post.

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