Antidote: H1N1 flu vaccine

There is a lot of confusion about this year's flu vaccine, in part because last year's novel H1N1 mild flu pandemic broke the usual mold on flu. The flu season came very early last year, in keeping with pandemic strains, and it had a predilection for younger patients, also typical of new flu viruses. And finally, though 43-89 million Americans were infected according to the CDC, there were only approximately 12,000 deaths, one-third of the usual number for seasonal flu, when it is the elderly who are predominately affected.                                                          

This year we are anticipating a more typical flu season, with the novel H1N1 receding into the background.  Though there appears to be an early surplus of vaccine, I am reluctant to vaccinate early—flu doesn't generally peak until February or March, and the vaccine is most effective for the first six months after giving it.     

I do not expect children or pregnant women to have a greater tendency to contract the flu this year. But I do believe that the CDC is right to recommend that all children over the age of 6 months receive flu shots. Children are super spreaders of the disease. If children are vaccinated, there will be much less flu around.

Similarly, I agree with the American Academy of Pediatrics that flu vaccines be mandatory for all healthcare workers.  Consider that despite all the attention that H1N1 swine flu received last year, only 37% of healthcare workers received this vaccine.                                                                               

As research proceeds on new and better flu vaccines, in the meantime, we can protect ourselves and those around us by taking the seasonal flu vaccine.

Marc Siegel, MD, is an internist and professor of medicine at New York University and the author of False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear
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